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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.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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