Difficult conversations are, well, difficult.
Hard. Challenging. Intimidating.
Easy to put off.
I’ve had several discussions recently with people who were trying to decide how to tackle a difficult conversation. In each case, the over-riding emotion was some form of do I hafta? combined with I’m dreading this!
Of course I understand. I face my own sense of dread and “do I really have to do this” when hard conversations loom in my life.
And yet I know for certain that the longer I put off these conversations, the harder they get and the worse the situation becomes. My perception of the difficulty grows from small to bigger to enormous, and the underlying problem, left untended, tends to escalate as well.
So, onward. If we must do it (and we must, unless we want to perpetuate the frustration and resentment), let’s do it as simply, clearly, and cleanly as possible.
Step One: define what you want
Any of my clients will tell you that I am forever clamoring for them to define what they want – in writing.
Thinking or talking about what you want will get you started, but it’s only when you write down your desired outcomes that you gain real clarity.
Writing it down also helps save you from the trap of randomly throwing solutions at the problem, which is a huge temptation when you’re in the middle of the situation. It feels logical – something’s wrong, let’s take action and fix it! – but 99% of the time you’ll only address the most glaring symptom, not the real problem.
Clearly defining the desired end point (in writing!) reveals options that you’d never otherwise be aware of.
Step Two: avoid apologizing
That’s a strong statement. Obviously there are times – as with one person I was discussing this with recently – where you really do owe the other person an apology.
However, if the conversation you need to have includes holding the other person accountable for their behavior, or asking them to alter their behavior in some way, starting out with an apology will weaken your position – especially if you’re dealing with someone who tends to be manipulative or passive-aggressive.
One option is to say, for instance, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, AND, is it unreasonable of me to expect you to follow through on your commitment?” (Obviously you’ll modify this to fit your situation.)
There are a lot of reasons why “is it unreasonable of me…” works. The short version is that inviting someone to say “no” to you – which is what this does – actually gives them a sense of control over the conversation. People are wary of agreement (saying “yes”) when they’re in conflict or negotiation or any sort of difficult conversation, but they’re quite willing to say “no” – even when that “no” is actually agreeing that you’ve just made a valid point!
Step Three: pick your time AND don’t delay
The longer you delay, the harder the conversation will be.
Timing is everything.
Reconciling the two takes discernment and self-awareness. You can easily talk yourself into waiting for just the right moment – but perhaps the right moment is actually right now!
That said, if you’re tackling an ongoing issue, try to find a time when it’s not in full flare mode. Difficult discussions are never emotion-free, but the emotional charge does rise and fall, and you want to avoid the impulse to go into problem-solving mode when the emotions are running high.
Instead, try suggesting to the other person that you each take time to define the outcomes you want and what you see as the primary issue. Then schedule time to sit down together and review what you’ve written … and talk about how you can move forward.
Yes, it’s hard.
And it can be transformative to the relationship.