Difficult conversations: Most people don’t like them, but we all need to have them at times. One of the biggest challenges in my years as a recovering pleaser was how to tell people the things I thought they didn’t want to hear. I thought confrontation should be avoided at all cost and it took me ages to realize that by avoiding difficult conversations, I wasn’t only selling myself short. I was also withholding valuable information form others: information that would give them the chance to apologize, adjust their behavior or improve their performance.
So instead of avoiding difficult conversations, it’s time to start confronting people in a constructive way. In this article I’ll show you exactly how to do that.
Preparing difficult conversations
1. Adopt the ‘And-stance’
You are not the only one that’s right. I’m sorry to be blunt here, but the first thing to do is to give up on that belief, because a) it’s just not true and b) if you bring that as your mindset, you can be certain that the conversation will indeed be difficult.
Instead, go with the ‘And-stance’:accept that it is possible for others to have a different opinion, and at the same time, be just as right as you are. From their perspective. Because they’re different people and probably have different information, they’ll have a different perspective on things.
2. Set a constructive intention
What you want to achieve in a conversation and how you intend to do that (your intention) have a big influence on the results. Remember: it’s not (only) what you say, but how you say it.
Examples of positive and constructive intentions are: gaining a better understanding of the other person’s perspective, sharing your vision on a topic.
An example of a not so positive intention is, to make the other person see your point of view. A general guideline for setting an intention would be to go with curiosity.
3. Don’t prepare too well
Most people prepare really well for potentially difficult conversations. That’s a risky approach though. Instead of really listening and adapting to what is actually happening, you’ll be going over the facts and your strategy while you’re in that difficult discussion.
Try this instead: trust that everything you know and all your opinions about the subject will be available during the conversation. I know this requires a leap of faith and I recommend experimenting with this in conversations that don’t feel too important to you. That way, you’ll grow your confidence safely (and see step 4!).
During difficult conversations:
4. Cut out all distraction & be present
This is probably the most important step of all. BE PRESENT. Give your whole, undivided attention to the conversation and the person you’re having it with. And to yourself. Really. Regularly checking in with yourself to ‘hear’ what your gut feeling is telling you will allow for step 3 to go well. When you recognize your gut feeling is ‘speaking up’, it’s your job to use what it’s telling you for the good of the conversation.
5. Hold off on solutions, judgments or conclusions (or: how to listen)
As soon as solutions, judgments or conclusions come in, your mind shuts itself for the new, the creative and the unexpected. To be able to connect to someone and find creative solutions during difficult conversations, you really need to be open.
So instead of thinking about solutions: hold space for someone to tell the full story. Instead of judging (if only in your head): open your mind to the unexpected and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Be curious! Finally: restrain yourself from drawing conclusions prematurely. Ask questions, really listen to the answer (also trying to hear what’s not being said) and ask follow up questions, to help both of you get the full picture.
6. Be respectful (or: how to speak)
The point of having difficult conversations is basically so you can ‘Speak Your Truth’. Use these guidelines when you’re speaking:
– Keep it straightforward and short; don’t cloud your message with ‘fluff’. – Focus on the effect things have on you, instead of pointing the finger. – Speak with care, not with caution. Caution prevents you from speaking your truth to protect feelings or reputations. Speaking with care makes you try hard to be accurate and respectful and stay connected.
7. Be open about emotions that may come up.
The most important reason why people don’t like difficult conversations, is that there may be emotions involved. But there’s really no reason to be afraid of of that. The best way to deal with emotions, either in yourself or in the other person, is to name them: ‘I see you’re mad about that’ or ‘I feel sad about what happened’. When emotions are called out like that, it’s possible to just talk about them, instead of them doing all sorts of destructive things in the undercurrent of the conversation.
What to do afterwards:
8. Give it a follow up
Easily forgotten, yet very powerful: check in with the person the day after. Ask how he/she’s doing, if any new info has come up and how they are incorporating your feedback.
9. Do it again if necessary
And don’t forget: it’s always possible to return to difficult conversations that didn’t go well. There’s no harm in going back and saying something like ‘I feel I didn’t get the chance to really explain my point of view. Do you have a minute to so I can explain it better?’ Of course that will probably lead to a reply – and thus to a new difficult conversation, but that’s not a problem anymore, right.
An added advantage is, that when you fully realise you can do it over, you’ll be more relaxed and present during the conversation, which in itself creates a bigger chance for success.
Courage is contagious
There’s this saying: ‘If you don’t say it, you’ll show it’. People pick up on unexpressed feelings or opinions surprisingly well. And when they do, the way they perceive you changes without you being able to influence it. And that’s absolutely not what effective people do. They work up the courage to just get into difficult conversations. And a powerful plus to this: courage is contagious, so your courageous deed will spread amongst your colleagues, family and friends, leaving you all able to speak your truth and stay connected, even when things get difficult.
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