What conversations are hard for you?

Is it difficult to receive criticism? Or to share feedback that could hurt someone’s feelings? Is it hard for you to stand up for a third party, to confront someone who owes you money, or to defend your beliefs when they are being attacked?

Sometimes, hard conversations can be avoided, but when that’s not possible, what’s the best way to get through them well?

This week, a client told me, “If we could just talk through our differences, I know we could find a way to get along.” In many cases he’s right. But too often those calm conversations never happen, or they become so heated that bridges are burned and scars are created instead of solutions.

How can you have an uncomfortable discussion without making the problem worse?

A Few Mistakes

I am grateful that many of my difficult discussions have gone well, but as I look back, a few bad experiences stand out as glaring examples of “What Not to Do.”

A situation with one college roommate turned sour during a disagreement about utility bills. The result: She threatened to leave my kitten near a busy highway, engraved X’s on every nice piece of furniture, and I eventually changed the locks and kicked her out… Not a great way to get the bills paid.

More recently, I began a relationship with some neighbors by critiquing their method of using our front yard as a driveway… Not a great way to make new friends.

In both cases, I handled a hard conversation poorly. What hard conversations have you handled poorly? What did you lose as a result?

A Better Way

In retrospect, there was a better way to approach each of these conflicts. My husband innately knows how to do this, but it’s not built into my DNA. Thankfully, it’s not too late for me (or you) to learn.

How can we avoid these mistakes? When stressful issues come up, or that tough conversation has to happen, how do we get through it without creating a problem that’s hard to recover from?

The method below has been adapted from Adele Lynn’s work on Emotional Intelligence. It involves a little awareness and a few new habits, but if you learn these steps, it will improve your friendships, families, and work environment. I hope this helps you build (rather than burn) relational bridges.

Healthy Confrontation

Use some (or all) of these seven strategies to successfully navigate hard conversations.

  1. Pay Attention – What do you feel and see? Notice facial expressions and body language. What non-verbal messages are you sending and receiving? This may help you auto-correct an eye-roll or scowl.
  2. Pause – Breathe, don’t blurt. Don’t react quickly or emotionally. Take time to think before you speak.
  3. Ponder – What do you hope to gain? What might be at risk? It’s better to verbalize your hopes and ask for theirs than to make assumptions. Think outside the box. How can you both get what you want?
  4. Prevent Misunderstandings – State conclusions clearly. Did they hear what you heard? Make sure you confirm any expectations, dates, responsibilities, or consequences.
  5. Process the Results – How did it go? What would you change if you had a “do-over”? What did you learn?
  6. Party – When a tough conversation goes well, celebrate! Reinforcing positive interactions makes them more likely to occur in the future.
  7. Practice – Keep up the effort. It takes time to build or rebuild a habit of healthy confrontation, but the results are worth it.

For further reading see Kerry Patterson’s Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High.

About the Author: Jeannie Murphy is an emotional intelligence coach equipping adults with the people skills they need to create healthy, fulfilling relationships personally and professionally. Happily married for 28 years, mother of three adventurous young adults, she is refilling her empty nest with four-legged friends.

Adapted from Adele Lynn’s Quick Emotional Intelligence Activities for Busy Managers 2007