We all need to have difficult conversations, either at work or in our personal lives, so having a strategy for difficult conversations is crucial to successful relationships. Imagine how your relationships could improve if you had a template you could use every time you have to have a difficult conversation. Not just any template – a template to make those conversations easier. Something which would enable you to be clear about what you need to say, confident that your message will be received, and help you to stay calm and on topic.
Many people avoid difficult conversations for fear of making things worse. Others find it so overwhelming they just leave it, and hope things get better on their own. Unfortunately leaving things unsaid rarely helps and you can be left feeling frustrated and resentful while the other person is blissfully ignorant. However, these 4 steps to make difficult conversations easier gives you a framework which you can use whenever you need. Even better, once you’ve experienced success, you are more likely to tackle those conversations earlier, and with more confidence, avoiding issues getting out of hand.
This process for managing difficult conversations is one I regularly go through with clients. After following the process, most clients feel relieved and amazed that their difficult conversation went better than they expected.
Here’s the strategy to address the things which send tricky conversations off the rails and optimises the likelihood of a positive response.
1. Practice what you are going to say
What derails a difficult conversation is going down a rabbit hole of side issues. When you are unclear what your primary message is, it is easy to lose sight of it when you add another perspective. It is common to be met with defensiveness when bringing up difficult issues and if you try to address everything you can forget your message. Here’s how to avoid the traps:
· Start with a solution focus and keep it foremost in your mind – identify the positive outcome you hope for (for example, a better working relationship, improved communication, etc.)
· Keep your message clear and succinct – only address one key issue per conversation.
· Write it down to help your memory.
· Practice saying your message as calmly and kindly as you can (how you say something is more important than the words).
2. Pick your timing and setting
To give yourself the best chance of being heard it is important you pick the most appropriate time and setting. Consider where and when the other person is most likely to be relaxed and ready to listen. Ensure the timing is respectful of their schedule and rhythms and yours. For example, you don’t want to be having a conversation at the end of the day if it is usually when the other person is at their most depleted.
3. Mentally and emotionally prepare
Being mentally and emotionally prepared for a difficult conversation is more important than the ‘right’ words to say. Be realistic about what to expect. You can expect to feel nervous, and you can also expect the other person may have an initial emotional response to what you are saying. Remember your positive, solution focus. Plan to stay focused if the conversation veers off topic and keep things on track by repeating your key message kindly and calmly. You too may have an emotional response to having difficult conversations so fortify yourself with encouraging self-talk and practice soothing your strong emotions. (Check out our blog for assistance if you need some emotional soothing.)
4. Stay calm and stick to the topic
A good method to stay calm when having a difficult conversation is to imagine you are being filmed and your friends and family are going to watch the conversation afterward. We tend to modify our behaviour when we think we are being watched! Another technique is to imagine yourself behaving in a way that makes you feel proud. You want to walk away from the conversation feeling like you acted with integrity and did the best you could. Take long and slow breaths if you feel emotionally activated. Remember your key point along with your solution focus and keep the conversation on track. (You can ask to have a separate conversation about any other topics that arise.)
Having difficult conversations is not easy but you can make them easier with the right planning and preparation. If you want better relationships it is a crucial skill to develop. There’s a bonus that you also feel good about yourself when you have acted with integrity. Try the 4 steps to have a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off. You may be surprised by how effective it is.