How To Help A Difficult Conversation Go Well
So you don’t like having difficult conversations? Join the club of about 95 per cent of the human population! Not one of my clients has ever said, “I LOVE difficult conversations and relish the opportunity every time it arises!!” Not one.
Yet if more people DID relish… or at least seize opportunities to have difficult conversations – in a way that is respectful, positive-outcome focused, calm and contained, the world and our relationships in it would be a better place.
Yes, difficult conversations are anxiety-provoking, scary and uncomfortable to be on either side of.
And… difficult conversations are the terrain where mutual understanding can be reached, where authenticity lies, where truth can blossom and where the nature of a relationship can become more mutually respectful and boundaried.
I’ve been consciously honing the art of having difficult conversations for at least 25 years. Honestly, my first attempts were pretty rugged and sometimes inadvertently caused hurt to others. And let’s face it, one of the fears of having a difficult conversation is that we will hurt or disappoint someone. But I was always proud that I'd had a go with the intention of not hurting someone.
So that you don’t have to mess up difficult conversations as I have in the past, here are my seven top tips for having one:
1. Know that difficult conversations – though they may disappoint people or hurt feelings – don’t have to be mean, nasty or disrespectful. Aim to be kind, calm and respectful and to maintain the dignity of all involved.
2. Prepare yourself ahead of time by thinking about your intention for the conversation. This is not just about the purpose, but also about how you want it to do. For example, “I want to tell my brother to stop speaking down to me and I want to be kind and respectful about it.” Or, “I want to ask my colleague to stop taking the glory for my ideas and I want to preserve our working relationship.”
3. Prepare the other person by giving them the heads up that your want to talk to them about something important. This way, they won’t feel ambushed, so they're less likely to feel attacked or become defensive. Ask them when would be a good time to talk. For example, “Hey Mel, I really value and appreciate you as a colleague and would like to have a chat to you about something important so we can work together even more effectively. Can you let me know when would be a good time to have a chat?”
4. When the chat is about to happen, remind yourself of your intention for it to be respectful and go well. Stay on topic. No “kitchen sink”-style conversing where you have a go at them about a raft of gripes you've been saving up. That will never go well! Stick to one thing. Keep the chat fairly succinct. Don’t let it go past 10 minutes.
5. “Sandwich” your message. This means, surround the difficult message (the filling) with two pieces of something good (the bread)! Start with a positive. For example, “Mel, you’re a really great colleague – hardworking, creative and passionate. We have a great working relationship.” Then the filling… which might unpalatable, like warm tomato sandwich on a summer’s day…”I’ve noticed that sometimes you take the credit for ideas that I’ve come up with and that makes me annoyed/disappointed.” Then, make a request of the person. “What I’d really appreciate and respect is if you would let me announce my own ideas in meetings so they’re recognised as mine. Could do you do that?” Then complete with a positive (another slice of bread) “I really enjoy working with you. And I look forward to lots more successful projects together in the future.”
6. Manage your expectations about what might happen after the conversation. Just because you’ve conducted a difficult conversation well (or better than in the past) don’t expect miraculous results of immediate compliance or complete acceptance from the other person. They will likely have feelings to work through (or not!) with regards to what you’ve said… or to the fact that you’ve said something!
7. Be proud of yourself for daring to speak your truth, for setting a boundary, for letting someone down, for saying no, or whatever it is. Know that with practice, you can become skilled at having difficult conversations. Keep at it, and become that person who relishes having difficult conversations, so you can truly honour your truth and speak it in a way that preserves the dignity of others - and you.