All of us are faced with conversations that we would rather not have. The recent misunderstanding with our boss, being let down by a friend, the pesky issue that won’t go away in our relationship.
Mostly, we avoid a direct conversation, convinced it will only make matters worse. Sometimes, an issue just demands we deal with it. But we must be able to answer the question, “Am I willing to commit to what it takes for this conversation to have a good outcome?”
If the answer is yes, the first step to get ready. And from there, you can follow a few other easy steps to confront that conversation you'd rather avoid.
Step One: Prepare.
It would be great if we could just launch into a tough conversation any old time, and it would go well. Realistically, though, taking a few minutes to prepare makes an enormous difference in our success, particularly if we are having strong feelings. It gives us a chance to calm down, to look directly at our thoughts and feelings, and get clear about what we want to say. If we have taken the time to listen to ourselves first, it is actually much easier to listen to someone else.
Preparing will also help us to be a better listener. If we can think ahead about what the other person may say in the conversation, we can consider their perspective ahead of time. It is amazing how much more compassion we have when we simply think about the other point of view.
Then we can initiate the conversation. Usually, a good conversation begins with a statement and a question. An example might be, “I am unsettled about our last project together. How did you feel about it?” or “I would like to work together better next time around. How do you feel?”
Step Two: Listen.
Listening has to do with preparing ourselves to listen, and staying present. Keep in mind that listening doesn’t mean agreement — it means listening. It is much harder to listen when we disagree or we feel criticized. When this happens, it is a good practice to notice and allow the defensive sensations to simply circulate in the body. Until we know how to do that, the sensations can hijack the conversation. We end up becoming defensive, sarcastic, or aggressive in our response.
When we have listened, restating what we have heard brings clarity to the conversation. And finally, don’t mix listening with problem solving or negotiating. Wait until we have heard each other out to start the next step.
Step Three: Share your perspective.
There are a couple of tried and true methods for sharing our perspective in a difficult conversation. Using first person voice or “I statements” is the key. Saying ,“I am concerned about our working relationship,” is different than saying, “Our working relationship is a problem.” This use of the third-person seems to be asserting a truth and invites disagreement. The first person simply expresses a perspective, and is easier to hear.
Including our feeling states humanizes our communication, and helps bring the heart online. Conceding that “I am angry” and taking responsibility for it without blame, or confessing that “I am sad” creates an emotional connection. Expressing vulnerability is often the most difficult feeling to include in these intimate conversations, but it also has the greatest effect in dissolving defensiveness on both sides.
Step Four: Relax and wait.
A brief period of letting go and relaxing after having a difficult talk is amazingly fruitful. Creative people understand that taking a break between generating ideas and finalizing them almost always results in a better outcome. Usually after we have talked, taking some down time, relaxing, even meditating for awhile creates a nice open space for something clear, something new, to emerge.
It could be that we have to fix to a problem right away or a good solution just erupts spontaneously while we talk. Then we should just go for it. But sometimes, it is better to have the conversation, and wait awhile before deciding to problem-solve.
Step Five: Problem-solve.
In any negotiation or problem-solving, we need to express what we want, what we need, and what we want and need from the other side. Skillful negotiation involves seeing where our wants and needs overlap, and we are usually surprised by how much more we have in common than we think.
For example, in a work situation we might discover that we both want a good relationship, we both need efficiency in our work, and we can split the difference on who does what. Easy. Negotiation is also a creative process, and it can be fun to be surprised by fresh and interesting outcomes to our conflict.
Perhaps the most important thing about having hard conversations is the investment that we make in our relationships. There are valuable people in our lives who also want to talk honestly, who want to take risks in communication, make mistakes and learn.
The more we practice with these people, the better our skills become, and the more efficient our conversations get. After a while, our differences become a source of curiosity and there is no longer something called “a hard conversation.”
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