How to Have Difficult Conversations

When you need to deal with an awkward topic, it can be tempting to run from it. Screaming. But with Get-It-Done Guy's approach, you can master the difficult conversation and make your life a lot easier. 

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #366

Bernice's first step is to sit down with Europa, find out Europa’s story, and share her own, without judgment. "Purchase orders for seeds were supposed to be submitted for store 1, but it was submitted for store 2 instead. While we were untangling that mistake, a duplicate order was submitted. Does that match what happened as you experienced it?" There's no judgment here—just a review of the facts. Europa might say, "The requests from inventory showed that store 2 seed stock was low. So the purchase order for seeds should have been submitted for store 2, as was done."

Reviewing the facts together can uncover factors that make it clear the feared issue is just an illusion in the first place.

The problem is the difference between the stories.

Differences Can Be About Feelings

The conversational elephant in the room that no one is talking about is feelings. Unsurfaced feelings can leak out and throw our conversations into chaos. Surface your feelings in the conversation, and listen to the other person's feelings, so you can discuss them. “I’m feeling really frustrated that we had to spend double the money on seeds. I’m angry, and also scared of the financial consequences.”

Make sure to describe feelings only, and not judgments. You can feel “angry,” “hurt,” or “scared.” Those are feelings. You can’t feel “betrayed” or “attacked”; those are interpretations based on feelings. The interpretation is “betrayed,” but the underlying feel might be “anger” or “fear.”

Differences Can Be About Identity

How to Have Difficult ConversationsThe biggest gotchas in difficult conversations are when our identities get involved. When core beliefs about who we are get challenged, we get defensive, fast. The same goes for the person you’re talking to. The remarks may be explicit, “You’re an incompetent poopy-head,” or implicit. They say, “I don’t like the font,” and you hear it as if they said, “You’re an incompetent poopy-head.”

Three identity hot buttons are threats to your competence, your status as a good person, and your worthiness. There’s no magic bullet for defusing identity conflict, but before you enter the discussion, re-ground yourself by recognizing: that you may be competent and still make mistakes; you are basically good, but your intentions are complex; and you have contributed to the situation, whatever it is. Then, if you feel your hackles starting to rise, notice if it’s an identity issue being threatened, and if so, take a deep breath and calm down.

Start with Identity

Start with your identity issues. That's where Bernice is starting. She's about to go talk to Europa. She’s starting with identity, reminding herself that she’s a good person, she’s pretty competent, and she’s worthy. She’s also reminding herself that Europa is a good person, pretty competent, and worthy. She’ll begin by listening and seeking to understand. Then she'll share feelings and facts, and move into problem solving. “Europa, could we talk about the seed situation? I’d like to understand it from your perspective...” And they’re off.

Get-It-Done GuyThis is Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. I help people create extraordinary lives. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Annoyed nerd man with black glasses and Close-up and mother and daughter having heart to heart courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.