Let’s face it, some conversations are just more difficult to have than others. Asking the boss for a pay rise, giving someone feedback on poor performance, talking with a partner about money or how to parent children are topics many of us try to avoid. 

We worry that we won’t fit in or feel supported; we don’t want to upset those we care about; we shy away from conflict or confrontation because we simply fear the worst.   

Unfortunately, not discussing the matter won’t make it go away. Uncertainty, frustration, anger and resentment build over time. The longer we wait to talk about a difficult situation or problem, the more emotionally charged our communication will become.

On the other hand, well-timed, honest conversations resolve workplace conflicts quickly, and improve engagement and performance. Authentic, from-the-heart talks deepen our connection and help us create more fulfilling, happier relationships.

Why are some conversations difficult?

We often start conversations from our own perspectives and with certain expectations. When these are challenged, we tend to respond emotionally. We may feel very strongly about our viewpoint; or we may feel disappointed, ignored, hurt or upset. These feelings can quickly steer a discussion to become ‘difficult’. And once emotions run high, a positive outcome is unlikely.

How to prepare for a difficult conversation

Because serious talks are often accompanied by strong emotions, it helps to plan the conversation – but don’t overthink it! A rehearsed script will sound like a monologue and may affect your ability to listen and react appropriately.

1) Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why do I want to have this conversation?

  •  Is the outcome I hope for realistic?

  • Have my actions (or behaviour) contributed to the situation?

  •  What assumptions am I making about the other person?

Write down your answers and use them to outline the conversation. Get clear about the main issue – jot down key points but focus on facts not assumptions. If it helps you to feel more confident and in control, use your notes during the discussion.

2) Consider time and place.

While it’s good to have a serious talk sooner rather than later, it’s best not to jump in unexpectedly, or when everyone is feeling stressed or emotional. (Don’t corner an employee in the corridor or confront your spouse as soon as they walk in the door!)

Select a time that suits both of you and choose a private space where you’ll both feel comfortable, and where you won’t be interrupted. Allow enough time for your conversation, without distractions. (Constantly checking your phone, for example, will send the message that you’re not interested in what the other person has to say.)

3) Reflect on verbal and non-verbal communication.

Go through the main points you wish to communicate– reflect on the actual words you’ve chosen, and visualise yourself talking calmly. Think about your body language: your gestures, facial expressions and posture send strong messages and can make the difference between someone feeling at ease or stressed.

Focus on releasing your belief that it’ll be ‘difficult’. Remind yourself that this conversation is about finding a solution or resolving conflict.

How to start a difficult conversation 

Heading into the conversation with a positive attitude and a genuine desire to learn something will make it easier to keep the talk constructive. Come from a place of respect and compassion, rather than blame. Remember, this is not the time to rant, vent or ramble.  

  • Use a neutral tone of voice when you speak.

  • Thank the other person for being there.

  • State the problem or the purpose of the conversation.

  • Start your sentences with ‘I’. For example, say ‘I think…’; ‘I feel…’; ‘As I understand it…’

  •  Avoid using ‘you’. For example, don’t say ‘You always…’, ‘You never…’.  

  • Keep it short.

How to keep the conversation on track

Because there are two (or more) people involved who each bring their own feelings and expectations, tough talks rarely stick to the script. So, regardless of how well the conversation begins, you’ll need to keep the discussion on course. 

Stay on topic. If the other person does not, say something like, ‘Let’s talk about that next time,’ and get back on track quickly.
Be interested. Ask open questions without blame so they feel comfortable joining in the conversation.
Really listen. Try not to interrupt when they speak; rather than waiting for your chance to talk again, reflect on their comments and don’t make hasty judgments.
Be willing to be wrong. Set aside your assumptions and accept that you may not have all the facts.
Look for solutions. Make suggestions to move forward but be sure to ask for their input, too. Be open to compromise.
Keep your cool. If you feel yourself getting worked up, take a breath and silently count to 10 before you continue.
Agree on the next step. At the end of the conversation, confirm what comes next.

Know when to walk away

Sometimes, despite the best intentions, the discussion may get too heated to continue. If voices are raised, talk becomes sarcastic or abusive, or either of you become silent or visibly upset, it’s time to take a break. It’s important to signal the end of the conversation. Make it about you, so say something like, “I’m struggling with… which is making it difficult for me to…” Then, “Let’s stop for now and try again another time.”

Arrange to continue your conversation once you’ve both had a chance to calm down and think about what has been discussed so far. And take pride in the fact that you’ve had the courage to take steps to improve a situation or resolve an issue.

Today’s action steps

  • Practise active listening in your conversations. Let each speaker talk without interrupting, then ask an open question to encourage them to share more.

  • Monitor your body language when speaking to others. Are you making eye contact? Are you frowning? Do you keep your arms crossed? Consciously relax your shoulders, smile lightly, sit or stand upright and lean in a little. 

  • Think about a difficult conversation you’re yet to have and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Consider and write down three reasons you feel may be contributing to their actions or behaviour. Humanising the other person will help you empathise with them, which can have a powerful effect on the course of your conversation.

If you’re unable to reach a positive outcome after trying again, you may need expert guidance. Our coaches are ready to support you: 

Book a session now to improve your communication skills. 

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