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5 Tips to Make Difficult Conversations Easier

5 Tips to Make Difficult Conversations Easier

Whatever the context, difficult conversations are… well, difficult. Very few of us relish the thought of having challenging or anxiety-provoking conversations, yet often these are the most important, life-defining conversations we’re likely to have. Whether you’re facing a potentially tricky rendezvous in your personal or professional life, here are five tips to help make difficult conversations easier:

1. Have the conversation sooner rather than later

One of the most common ways we deal with anxiety is avoidance. If you want to keep your relationship with the person in question, however, trying to dodge the conversation is not a good plan. In the long run, avoidance usually leads to one of two outcomes. The first is that you reach a breaking point and snap. Annoyance, anger, resentment, hurt, and more can all build up over time if a situation isn’t resolved and processed. When those feelings become overwhelming, you’re more likely to blame, shame, and criticize, and less likely to be able to engage in a productive dialogue with the other person.

The second potential outcome is that you wait so long that the natural window for the conversation passes. When this happens, and you do eventually have the conversation, it could leave the other person wondering whether there’s anything else you want to talk to them about but haven’t. Delaying the conversation can damage the trust in the relationship, and leave the other person wondering where they really stand with you.

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2. Avoid blame, judgements, and criticism

As I mentioned above, when hidden feelings become overwhelming, we’re more likely to blame, judge, and criticize the other person, which can be toxic to our relationship with them.

Blame involves putting the majority responsibility for the situation and your feelings onto the other person: for example “You made me feel sad.” Judgement involves attributing labels to the person, incident, or event: for example, “You’re stupid” or “That was a stupid thing to do.”

These three elements are highly damaging to conversations and won’t make a challenging conversation any easier. When blame, shame (as a consequence of judgement), and criticism enter a conversation, the person on the receiving end is likely to feel attacked and will focus on trying to defend themselves, rather than on coming to a peaceful resolution.

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3. Use “I-messages”

When we’re feeling anxious, upset, hurt, or angry, it’s easy to focus on what the other person has said and done, rather than our experience. This is a surefire path to the three conversation no-nos above and will leave the other person far less receptive to what you’re trying to say. To avoid getting into a heated debate of ‘You said X,’ ‘Well you said Y,’ forget about pointing out the other person’s wrongs and stick to reporting your own experience instead. In practice, this might look like: “When you told me to shut up, I felt very hurt,” or “I felt angry when you said you would email me that piece of work on Monday but didn’t send it until Wednesday.”

By talking in terms of your feelings and needs, you’re also owning your own experience rather than placing the responsibility for your feelings onto the other person. This helps the conversation steer clear of “I want you to do this/stop doing this” and instead allows you to express yourself and what you want, without making demands.

4. Focus on specific feedback

Notice in the examples above that the speaker uses specific and objective actions and events. When emotions are running high, it’s tempting to slip into generalizations like, ‘You never help me with the housework,’ ‘no one cares,’ and ‘I’m always the one left to deal with this.’ Words like ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘everyone,’ ‘no one,’ and other absolutes are red flags in communication. First of all, they’re not specific. Secondly, they’re unlikely to be objectively true: very few people ‘always’ or ‘never’ behave a certain way — plus we’re not mind-readers so we’re unlikely to know what ‘everyone’ or ‘no one’ is thinking or feeling.

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Stick to specific events or instances and the other person will be far more likely address the concerns or issues you’re raising.

5. Listen and reflect

Expressing your feelings and needs is only half the conversation; the other half involves listening to the other person and ensuring that you understand their perspective. The most effective way to do this is to reflect back what they are saying and to genuinely empathize with their position.

In practice, this would look something like: “I hear you saying that you’ve been really stressed recently and I understand you found it hard to meet the project deadline with everything that’s been going on at home.” This doesn’t mean you have to be happy about the situation; you can empathize with the other person and have your own feelings about the situation and their behavior too. If the other person feels seen, heard, and understood, they are far more likely to work with you in a difficult conversation than against you.

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What are your tips for making difficult conversations easier? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

More by this author

Hannah Braime

Hannah is a coach who believes the world is a richer place when we have the courage to be fully self-expressed.

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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