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Difficult Conversations: How to Get the Results You Want

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
-George Bernard Shaw

Maybe you need to talk to your partner about their child’s behavior during dinner or maybe you need to speak to your in-laws about a sensitive topic. You know you need to have a conversation about these things, but you’ve tried to avoid it. You’re worried about how it will affect your relationship with your partner or your in-laws. Instead, you try to keep it to yourself, but your feelings keep piling up. You’re worried one day you’ll just explode, and you’ll end up saying things in anger that you’ll later regret.

“Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
-Ambrose Bierce

By the way, this situation is very common. Researchers have found that most people try to avoid having difficult conversations. According to one workplace startup resource, seventy percent of employees avoid difficult conversations with their boss and coworkers. They avoid these conversations for a variety of reasons, including:

  • fearing that they will damage or ruin a relationship
  • fearing that they won’t be able to manage their emotions during the conversation
  • feeling uncomfortable about the situation
  • lacking skills and strategies to handle the situation

In fact, these tough conversations become crucial conversations in life and death situations, such as in the medical field when nurses or doctors observe that something isn’t quite right. According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, in one study of 7,000 doctors and nurses, 84 percent of the respondents said that they regularly see people not taking the proper precautions or breaking rules. And the odds of a nurse speaking up in these crucial situations are less than one in twelve.

So, we know that difficult conversations need to happen professionally and personally in a variety of situations, but the hard part is initiating the conversation and then engaging in the dialogue in an effective way. Maybe as you are reading this, an uncomfortable situation that you need to address comes to mind. Let’s talk about how you can prepare for this conversation so you can get the results you want.

Best Practices When Having Difficult Conversations

1. Plan, Prepare, and Practice

Get crystal clear on why you want to have this conversation. If you have bad news to share, you can use the SPIKES protocol.

Ask yourself:

  • What results do I want from this conversation?
  • What do I want for the relationship?
  • What do I want to achieve by having this conversation?

Once you have determined the results you want, gather any information or facts that you need for the conversation. The more prepared you feel, the more confident you’ll feel coming into the conversation. You can write down your ideas and practice with a friend. You might feel silly role-playing, but practicing the conversation in a safe environment will help you feel better prepared to manage your emotions during the conversation.

Some conversation starters:

  • I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I’d like to talk with you about ____________ , but first I’d like to get your point of view.

2. Choose the right time, place, and frame of mind

Think carefully about the place you want to have the conversation. Choose a “neutral” place in which both of you will feel comfortable. If defenses are up, you won’t be able to have a productive conversation.

Timing is also key. Ask yourself: Am I open to hearing another person’s perspective? If the answer is no, you’ll need to wait until you are able to approach the situation with an open mind.

3. Be clear about the issue

When you’re explaining the issue, don’t sugar coat it or beat around the bush. Instead of making assumptions, share the facts. During this step, it’s important to balance courage with consideration. Yes, you need to be courageous to initiate the conversation, but you also need to consider the other person’s feelings. Put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine the situation from their perspective.  

If the conversation becomes heated, and you don’t feel like you’re having a productive conversation, pause for a moment and say: “Hold on. I didn’t intend for the conversation to go this way. Can we start over?” This is a powerful way to reset the conversation. Remember to think back to your desired results for the conversation.

4. Be curious

Approach the conversation from a curious point of view. Ask the other person questions and give them an opportunity to share their thoughts. Listen carefully to what they say. (Tips on becoming an empathic listener here.) Keep an open mind and an open heart. Sometimes, we create our own stories on what we think may have happened in a certain situation, but we don’t know the whole story. That’s why it’s important to simply ask questions and try to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view.

Get Started

Now it’s time to get started and use these best practices. Day 3 of Stepmom Bootcamp: A 21-Day Challenge is all about having a tough conversation. Day 3 will challenge you to identify and initiate a tough conversation. Afterwards, you’ll reflect on your conversation to determine what went well and what you’ll do differently next time. Overall, the more practice you get both personally and professionally, the more confident you’ll feel in having difficult conversations.

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