How To Have Difficult Conversations
Published on October 24th, 2020
Updated on January 2nd, 2024
Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of life – and one that no one really looks forward to. It is not fun to deliver unpleasant news, discuss uncomfortable things, or talk about something that brings up strong emotions. The mere thought of having a difficult conversation can trigger fear and anxiety, which is why so many people avoid these interactions altogether. But with avoidance nothing changes, and, more often than not, actually causes things to get worse. Through doing a bit of “prep-work”, we can learn to quiet some of the anxiety and increase our confidence going into a challenging conversation.
Prepping for the Difficult Conversation
It can be hard to know how to start the difficult conversation. Planning this in advanced can be helpful. There are many ways to initiate challenging conversations:
- Plan in advance – together with the other person set an agreed upon time and place (if in person) for the difficult conversation to take place.
- Clarify your objective – it is vital you know why you are having the conversation; what is the objective? Identifying your goal and being able to state your desired outcome is crucial and can help you maintain focus when the conversation occurs.
- Do not make assumptions – leading up to the conversation, it is vital to identify any assumptions you might be making about how the other person will react or respond. Making assumptions creates expectations, which are not helpful. Making assumptions can also contribute increased anxiety about the difficult conversation.
- Educate yourself on communication styles
- Passive communication – this occurs when we do not express our thoughts, feelings, and opinions with others. Passive communication often comes from a place of fear of confrontation or not wanting to hurt the other person. Passive communicators tend to not have their needs met, and allow the other person to “get their way.”
- Passive aggressive communication – this style of communication can seem docile on the surface, but ultimately, it is a way to communicate anger indirectly. Sarcasm, subtle sabotage, and talking behind another person’s back are all ways we engage in passive aggressive communication.
- Aggressive communication – Aggressive communication occurs when you state your needs in a way that leaves little room for the other person’s needs. Aggressive communication often arises when a person feels threatened. Aggressive communication can look like yelling and screaming, using verbal put-downs or name calling, using humiliation in an attempt to control, or even just interrupting the other person a lot.
- Assertive communication – this style of communication is the most effective overall. Assertively communicating means stating our thoughts, needs, and opinions without violating the rights of the other person. We employ assertive communication when we use “I’’ statements, engage in active listening, speak in a calm manner, and cultivate empathy for the other person.
- Know your part – prior to having the difficult conversation, it can be helpful to reflect on what part you have played – how have you contributed to the issue or problem? This is essential for staying away from the blame game, and instead, allow for willingness to make amends.
During the Difficult Conversation
- Maintain open body language – many people tend to cross their arms and/or make little eye contact during difficult conversations. However, having open body language – through uncrossing our arms and legs and maintaining eye contact – will help in our efforts to effectively communicate the message, and help the other person receive that message in the clearest way.
- Speak clearly and concisely – this means being succinct with our words and speaking at a volume and rate that can be heard/understood by the other person.
- Stay on your “side of the street” – know what is in your control and what is not within your control
- Ground yourself – going into the conversation as calm and centered as you can will help you communicate in the most effective manner.
- Put yourself in the other’s shoes
- Ask for clarification – If you are unclear about anything the other person is saying, ask questions rather than making assumptions.
- Practice active and reflective listening – active listening requires full concentration and attention on the listener’s part. It requires the listener to not only hear the words, but the overall message of what is being communicated. Reflective listening takes active listening a step further. Reflective listening involves understanding the message of what is being communicated, as well as reiterating that message back to the other person (i.e. – “what I heard you say was….”). This approach assures the message was received, or allows for clarification, if needed.
- Be willing to compromise – compromise is essential to effective communication, especially when it comes to conversations that involve a problem or an issue. For compromise to occur, there are to be a sense of flexibility and equal consideration. Compromise means working collaboratively to come up with a solution that satisfies both parties, and where neither party feels they are “giving in or giving up” more than the other.