How to Have a Difficult Conversation
Are you avoiding a difficult conversation? Learn how to “have the talk.”
Do you tend to avoid difficult conversations? If so, this article is for you. Learn how to improve your relationships with open, courageous conversation.
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How to Have a Difficult Conversation
If you have a strong impulse to avoid difficult conversations, you’re not alone. We’re taught “don’t rock the boat” or “don’t open that can of worms.” Instead of confronting issues, we retreat.
Just recently I was faced with a very difficult client situation. Although I knew there was a problem and that I should probably address it, I chose to ignore the problem. I told myself, “Ah, I’m too busy to deal with it right now, and besides, dealing with it will likely bruise our relationship--and it probably won’t change anything.”
Why Avoiding Difficult Conversations Is Bad
I know I’m not alone. Many people, even those with good communication skills, occasionally retreat when faced with difficult and stressful communication issues. We avoid sensitive subjects and let a relationship flounder. Don’t get me wrong, I do think you need to pick your battles;not everything needs to be directly confronted.
However, when we avoid important conflicts, it’s likely to do more damage to the relationship than addressing the situation would. When you avoid communication, the vacuum gets filled with negative assumptions and ill will. Very small matters can bloom into conflicts that become “unmentionable.”
And worse, these “elephant in the room” conflicts can eventually grow so HUGE that eventually they demand your attention. In fact, a 2007 survey (sponsored by Nationwide) reported that because of failure to discuss a difficult issue, nearly half of the respondents lost sleep, 10% reported poor health, and 5% reported a loss of a job or friendship.
So, today I’d like to talk about a six quick and dirty steps to help you “have the talk” and successfully have that difficult conversation.
Step #1: Consider the Other Person’s Perspective
As a young adult when I would disagree with my Dad, he’d say, “Everyone is entitled to their own misguided opinion.” What he meant was that everyone comes to a conversation with different backgrounds, influences and perceptions. He wanted me to understand that although he understood my point of view, he disagreed.
When preparing for a difficult conversation it’s critically important to think about the perspective of the other person. If you were that person, what would you be thinking and feeling? What would be important to you?
Step #2: Prepare for a Difficult Conversation
But sometimes that’s not enough. If it’s a really important relationship and you don’t want to hurt it (by saying something stupid) then you’ll need to gain a broader perspective. If possible, talk to a mutually trusted third party to help you understand the situation better. Often a third party can present a point of view or advice without emotional attachment.
If you don’t have someone to go to for support, try to find others who have already gone through the issue. You might want to try to find an expert who has dealt with the same issue many times before; they can help you understand the possible best approaches and possible responses in your situation.
About five years before it was necessary to sell my Dad’s house and about 10 years before he would finally need to give up his keys, we talked to several doctors and social workers about how to talk to him about these life-changing events. We consulted several websites and we talked to families who had already gone through the same issues.
Step #3: Discuss Possible Issues Ahead of Time
Because of the expert advice, we understood how important it was to start discussing these important issues before they became a heated conflict.
As a way to deal with the driving issue, we bought a computer-based screening tool that measured mental, visual, and physical skills that are important for safe driving. My Dad was an engineer and having an objective measure of his driving skills was an acceptable way to start discussing the issue. Ten years ago we were able to say, Dad, I’m sure you’re skills are fine now; let’s just document what you’re able to do now using this software. Also, let’s start to talk about what you think is a reasonable criteria for deciding when it’s time to stop driving.
For the house, we decided to approach it from a consequences perspective. We listed all the consequences of him choosing to stay in his house. Then we had progressive conversations about these consequences, one at a time, moving from least important to most significant consequences for his him and us.
People need time to marinate and digest difficult issues. Be sure to allow plenty of time. It took us several years and many, many conversations to talk about these issues. If you start early enough, the only goal of the initial conversations is to be informative. That makes it easier for the other person to take the news—nothing has to change just yet. The hope is that the person will, in time, make a decision, improve, or take action on his or her own terms. However, eventually the conversations may need to move to a goal of persuasion.
Step #4: Actively Listen & Reflect
My Dad was pretty stubborn when it came to the car keys issue (as I suspect I will be too). It was really important to listen to his concerns and make sure he was satisfied that we understood his perspective. That meant not offering alternatives at first, but simply listening and reflecting his concerns. “Yes, Dad, we recognize that not driving represents giving up your freedom.”
Step #5: Present Alternatives
A separate, later step is to offer alternatives. But again, that step should come only after the other party feels they have been heard. “Dad, here are some alternatives that would still give you freedom. We can drive you where you want to go. You can hire someone to be your driver. You can use taxis or the town shuttle. There are many ways to freely get around without driving yourself. Yes, we understand they have limitations; however, there are alternatives to at least consider”. Again, the goal is to have the other party decide on his own which alternative is best, allowing him to exert some control over a situation that seems out of his control.
Step #6: Take Action
Unfortunately, in some cases, that’s still not enough. Even if you do view the issue from their perspective; even if you do prepare for the conversation with experts; even if you do discuss limitations, criteria, and consequences; even if you actively listen and provide alternatives—you may still have to have a very difficult conversation. Ultimately if the other party is intransigent, then no amount preparation will make the discussion easy.
Some discussions are just that—difficult!
In this case, you may have to solicit the support of a higher-level third party to force the issue. For example, in the case of driving, many experts suggest having a doctor submit an unsafe-driver report.
My hope is that these quick and dirty steps will help you “have the talk” and have a positive outcome without having to resort these final extreme measures.
This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.
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