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