How to have difficult conversations

When preparing for the conversation, ask yourself 'how can I be entirely honest while at the same time being respectful?'

If you find some conversations particularly confronting, take comfort in the fact that you are far from alone.  Asking for a pay rise, raising concerns, apologizing for a mistake, delivering constructive criticisms are examples of just some of the types of things people often find difficult to talk about, says Karen Gately.

When the stakes are high, or emotions are charged many of us struggle to engage well. In many instances people either avoid the conversation altogether or approach it in ways that ultimately undermine relationships or leave issues unresolved. 

Reflect for a moment on how often you have seen issues go unresolved or worsen because the people involved simply didn’t want to have a necessary chat. Have you or other people you know lived to regret your decision to let things slide so a difficult conversation, or series of them, could be avoided?

Recognise when conversations are necessary

The simple reality is some conversations are necessary to enable the outcomes we want in life.  For example, building and maintaining healthy relationships based on trust and respect demands that we engage well in honest, albeit at times uncomfortable, conversations. 

For example, when relationships become strained, avoiding or ‘tip toeing’ around the issue does nothing to improve the situation and holds us back from moving forward. Sitting back and waiting for your manager to give you the feedback you need and want holds you back from growing in your role or getting ahead in your career. Being hesitant to speak up when you believe you are being underpaid will stand in the way of you earning what you deserve. 

Understand why conversations are difficult

Improving your ability to confront and deal with difficult conversations starts with learning more about you. For example, recognizing the types of conversations that make you feel especially uncomfortable and why, is key to overcoming internal barriers that stand in your way. 

How you think and feel about the conversation is a key influencer of the approach you take, and ultimately the impact you have on the outcome. Fears about how we will be perceived, or how either we or other people may feel are common reasons for avoiding the conversation. 

Reframe the conversation

Deciding a conversation will be a difficult one, before its even begun, is one sure way to make it just that: difficult. How often have you assumed a conversation would be more challenging than it turned out to be? Have you experienced avoiding a conversation, only to find when you did pluck up the courage it wasn’t so bad after all?

Reframing the conversation starts with shifting your focus to the benefits that can be realized. Recognize how speaking up and engaging in constructive dialogue can help you to create the outcomes you want.  For example, will raising your concerns with your partner about their irritating habit give them a chance to better understand their impact on you, and do something about it?

If you choose to go into that conversation with a combative mindset, you may be tempted to accuse the other person of being inconsiderate or even selfish. Making statements that are accusing or intended to shame the other person will inevitably lead to conflict. 

Most human beings will defend themselves when they feel blamed or under attack. Avoid personal attacks by focusing on sharing insights to how you are feeling and what your needs are. For example, rather than saying “You hurt my feelings” rephrase that to “My feelings were hurt”. 

When preparing for the conversation, ask yourself—how can I be entirely honest while at the same time being respectful? Spend some time reflecting on the nature of the other person and how their character or circumstances may influence their approach to the conversation. Be prepared to tailor your own style to optimise the likelihood of the other person being receptive to healthy dialogue. 

Manage you in the moment

Regardless of how well you plan, the truth is you have no way of knowing precisely how things will pan out. No matter how much you shift your thinking, you may still feel a degree of emotional angst when the moment comes to start the conversation. 

Being comfortable with this discomfort is a powerful way of maintaining emotional control and composure. Our unconscious desire to flee from or fight our way out of emotionally uncomfortable situations is likely to impact how you respond. Observe the influence adrenaline is having on your mind and body and accept it as natural, and then ignore it!

Breath. It’s common for people to hold their breath when in stressful situations. The problem is our capacity to think clearly and respond effectively is undermined. A recent study found that by simply focusing on our breathing, ECG activity in the regions of our brain related to emotion, memory and awareness become more organised.

Slow down and take time to think if you need to. Feeling under pressure to respond, particularly when the other person is attacking, can cause us to say things we might not otherwise. If necessary, ask for a ‘time out’ and regroup when you feel more able to proceed constructively. 

Keep the conversation on track but also avoid the all too common mistake of rushing through so everyone can escape the discomfort they feel. Stay in the conversation with an open mind and the courage to be vulnerable. 

Healthy dialogue is more likely to be maintained when both parties choose to listen to understand. As author Stephen Covey famously said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. 

As challenging as it can be in the moment, avoid slipping into debate by looking for ways to win an argument.  Rather than thinking about what you want to say next focus on what the other person is saying and how they are feeling.  With empathy and understanding you are entirely more likely to keep the conversation healthy and productive. 

Always remember, you only have the power to control what you bring to the conversation. While your approach can influence other people, each of us will respond in ways that reflect our own perceptions of reality and the emotions we feel. The best you can do is adopt an approach that is both honest and respectful. 

Karen Gately writes for Executive PA Media on HR matters. Karen is founder of Corporate Dojo

& is a leadership and people-management specialist