We all find ourselves having difficult conversations at some point in time. Whether at work or in our relationships outside work, having difficult conversations are never easy, and that’s why they are “difficult.” There are ways to make these conversations both productive and as painless as possible. These conversations are the times when you know you should talk to someone, but you don’t. Maybe you’ve tried to get your feelings and concerns across, and it went badly. Or perhaps you fear that talking will only make the situation worse. Still, you feel stuck, and you’d like to free up that stuck energy for more useful purposes.
When difficult conversations are handled well, both you and the other person talk openly and honestly. Both of you are candid and respectful, so as a result, problems are resolved, and your relationships benefit. Here are 6 steps and tips that help you engage in the best way.
1. In preparing for the conversation, work on “me” first.
Ensure you are confronting the right problems. What is your purpose? Be sure the thoughts – facts, stories, and emotions – help you see the other person as a person rather than a villain. Revisit the stories that caused this perception. Your assumptions about the other’s intentions and the different conclusions you’ve drawn are actually hypotheses. They must be discussed.
Think about what you want for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. Think about the pattern you’re noticing and the relationship. Consider the consequences and intentions. Ask yourself what you do and don’t want for the outcome, others, and the relationship.
Work on your own thoughts and feelings. Stand in the other person’s shoes. For example, ask why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would do what you’ve just seen.
2. Start with safety.
At the foundation of every successful difficult conversation and confrontation lies safety. If you can create a safe environment, you can talk with almost anyone about almost everything. Others will hear and consider what you are saying. They must believe you respect them as a human being (mutual respect). You must care about a positive goal for your relationship.
When others move to silence (withdrawing, masking, avoiding) or violence (controlling, labeling, verbal attacking), these are signs that others don’t feel safe. With enough safety, you can talk about anything.
Your tone of voice, facial expression, and words can show respect or disrespect. If the other person sees that your purpose is at odds with theirs, they will likely conclude that the situation is not safe. Find a way to let them know that you respect them, and you are interested in an aligned purpose. Explain what you don’t and do mean. Build common ground.
3. Use your curiosity as you ask questions and let the other person talk.
Come from an attitude of curiosity. Pretend you don’t know anything (you really don’t), and try to learn as much as possible about the other person and his point of view. Pretend you’re entertaining a visitor from another planet, and find out how things look on that planet, how certain events affect the other person, and what the values and priorities are there.
Watch for the person’s body language and listen for what they may be unable to say. What does this person really want? What is he or she not saying?
Let the person talk until he is finished. Don’t interrupt except to acknowledge. Whatever you hear, don’t take it personally. It’s not really about you. Try to learn as much as you can. You’ll get your turn, but don’t rush things. Acknowledge your understanding of their point of view. Acknowledgment means showing that you’ve heard and understood.
4. Share the facts, and then your story.
Share facts – what you see and hear. Don’t start with your stories. This can cause defensiveness. Describe the other’s behavior and the results. Frame the problem by staying external and objective, explain what, and not why.
Share your story. Look for signs of defensiveness and see it as a sign that is a threat to safety. Then, step out of the content and rebuild safety. Might the other person feel disrespect or believe your intentions are wrong (or both)?
End with a question such as “What happened?” Make this an honest inquiry, not a veiled threat or an accusation such as “What’s wrong with you?” Your goal is to hear the other’s point of view. Then, listen carefully for the underlying cause.
5. Finish well with a clear expectation and mutual agreement.
End with clear expectations. Don’t be satisfied with just good talk. Come to an agreement and decide together what is going to happen from this point forward. Create a plan together. Move to action by ensuring both of you are crystal clear about how to get the issue resolved once and for all. Come to a specific agreement about who is going to do what by when. Then agree when you’ll follow up to see that you and the other person have kept these commitments.
6. Practice, practice, practice!
The art of a difficult conversation is like anything else you want to master. Continued practice will help you to acquire skills and confidence. Practice the conversation with a friend before holding the real one. Mentally practice the conversation, seeing various possibilities, and visualize yourself handling them with ease. Envision the outcome you are hoping for.