Handling Difficult Conversations

Published: 03rd June 2010
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How do you respond to difficult conversations? Do you hide from them? Do you push your way through them like a bull in a china shop? Each of us, whether we work independently or in an office environment, faces difficult conversations every day. You want to feel confident and in control when you face a difficult conversation. Now you can learn how to do just that. In this article, I will share some tips for handling the two kinds of difficult conversations we face.

There are two types of difficult conversations: the ones where we must tell someone something he or she does not want to hear and the ones where we are hearing something we don't want to hear. Let's look at both instances

Sharing information someone doesn't want to hear. This kind of difficult conversation sneaks into our lives in all sorts of places. It can occur in relation to something that your best friend or your spouse did, or it can occur in relation to something your boss did. Regardless, how you handle the situation could make or break a relationship (or a job!). One of my clients often has to face difficult conversations with his spouse. He describes his spouse as a "shark" who might lop off his arm if he doesn't handle the conversation with the utmost care. We've worked through many a conversation. Sometimes he, indeed, loses an arm and other times he comes out successfully. One of the biggest problems with sharing information someone doesn't want to hear is we don't want to share it. We'd prefer for the problem to correct itself without our intervention. Our reluctance to act means we wait too long. We put off what we must do.

Here are some tips for dealing with these kinds of difficult conversations:

• Act quickly. Do not wait for the problem to resolve itself. The faster you act the easier it will be for the person to accept the information. If, for example, you let it go on for weeks (or sometimes years), the person's actions become habitual. It will be harder for them to change their behavior. Furthermore, the person might challenge you with, "Why are you telling me this now?"

• Think before you act. Ask yourself what exactly is troubling you. Ask yourself what you want the person to do. Ask yourself if the problem is indeed a real problem. Have you made a mountain out of a mole hill? What is really going on here? Do some serious soul-searching before you act.

• Listen to the other person's point of view. While you are listening to the other person, apply the Three C's from the Say It Just Right model. Listen with compassion and curiosity. Imagine what it must be like for them to hear what you are saying. And always remember you cannot change the other person. Be ready to make changes and concessions yourself.

• Listen with an open, nonjudgmental ear. Do not try and figure out why someone is doing something. You cannot read minds and are not trained in Freudian psychoanalysis. You insult people when you make naive assumptions about the motivations behind their behaviors.

• Accept small changes that lead to more effective communication.

Hearing information you do not want to hear. All of us face times when someone sits us down and says, "There's something I need to say to you." Oops. Now we are on the other side of the table. As soon as we hear those words, what happens to us? If you're like me, you feel the hair rise on the back of your neck. You feel your defenses soar. Again, we can do some things to make these kinds of difficult conversations easier.

• Don't get defensive. Of course, this is easier said than done. As soon as we feel someone is challenging us, it's a natural reaction to feel defensive. We want to say, "But, I didn't mean" or "But, you weren't there" or "But, you also do." The list is endless. Instead of responding with your usual "buts", listen to what the person has to say.

• Ask lots of questions. Here you will apply the second C of the Three C's in the Say It Just Right model. You want to be really curious. Discover as much as you can about what the person wants from you.

• Negotiate. Once you know what the person wants, share what you want. Then, you are in a position to negotiate. If, for example, your boss wants you to spend more time in the office, you might suggest one hour a week more instead of one hour a day. Become an active player in the solution of the problem.

• When the criticism feels personal, take a deep breath and try to de-personalize it. Often, people use language that puts us on the defensive. For example, someone might say, "You said you'd finish this by Friday and you failed again." All those "you statements" feel personal. When you respond you need to ask questions. "What do you mean I failed again? Help me understand where that's coming from."

• Make sure you are clear on the next steps before the conversation ends. Do not end a difficult conversation with something vague. "I'll try and do better." Or "Okay, whatever you say."

We all face difficult conversations both at home and at work. The trick is learning how to best handle those conversations so they do not destroy our relationships. When you study the Say It Just Right model of communication and put those ideas into practice, you will get closer to that magic place where even difficult conversations are not so hard.

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