One of the most important skills we can teach our children is how to have a difficult conversation calmly. Kids can learn these techniques, but they work just as well with other family members, friends, colleagues and even bosses.
Because we can always use the reminder, here are a couple of my favorite techniques:
1. Announce you are having a hard time with something and ask for a good time to talk about it.
Example: I am having a hard time with the current schedule and would like to talk to you about it, when would be a good time?
If you don’t want to admit you are “having a hard time with” something, alternative phrases would be “I have some questions about X.”
If the person says, “right now,” and you are not ready, just say so! (Example: I really appreciate that you are willing to discuss this right now, but I want to be sure that I present my thoughts clearly. When is another time we could meet?)
The advantage of this technique is that it assures you get the other person at a time when he is more likely to listen.
2. If the topic is a very emotional one for you—or you get easily overwhelmed by even thinking of bringing up a potential conflict—own it and ask to just be heard.
Say, I’m not sure why this is so hard for me to bring up, but I have something weighing on my mind that I would like share with you. What I would really appreciate, actually, is if for right now I could just tell you about it but that we wait a few days to talk about it. Would you be willing to just listen for right now?
Often, if you know that person is not going to immediately yell at you or start tearing your ideas apart, it is easier to fully express what is going on for you. You will be able to offload your emotion and share your concerns. Once you get permission to share, be sure to stay focused on your own perspective.
Example: I really value your friendship and want to spend time with you, and at the same time I feel like I am always the one reaching out to you. That makes me wonder if you value our friendship as much as I do. I don’t want to impose myself on you and neither do I want to do all the work of arranging for us to meet. If you want to spend time with me, it would make a big difference if you would reach out to me more often with a plan. That would make me feel that you cared. Thanks for listening and being willing to give this some thought. Let me know in the next couple days when would be a good time for me to hear your perspective.
Note that there are three likely outcomes with this example: 1) the friend never arranges a time to meet, sending a clear message she does not, in fact, value the friendship. 2) the friend responds not by sharing her perspective but by taking action and proposing a date or an outing. Take this as having been heard and go with it. 3) the friend proposes a time to meet and shares her perspective. This is not the time to make a counter argument. You got to be heard by her; now it is your turn to listen. When she is done, you can ask if she’d like to talk about it now—or if you think you are going to be too emotional, you can ask to respond in a few days. Just say you really want to think carefully about what she has said.
This technique allows you to be an emotional mess with someone you trust, while at the same time getting your position out in the open. If it is not appropriate to be emotional, knowing that the other person isn’t going to say anything about it right away can help you say your piece calmly.
3. Use an I-Statement to succinctly express your position without going into a long drawn out conversation.
Example: When you arrive late without calling to let me know, I feel disrespected, because I need that information in order to make adjustments in who is working what station. Next time please call me if you even think you might be late.
Let’s break that down: The first part identifies a specific behavior (arriving late without calling). It is important that you stick to the specific incident at hand. Do not use phrases like “When you are always late” because that gives the person a chance to argue with you (probably he is not always late). The second part shares your feelings (I feel disrespected). Note that it is not accusatory, i.e., you are not saying “you are so disrespectful.” Just stick to your own feelings. The third part explains your feelings (I need that information to do my job). This shows that you are not throwing out something random. The forth part is a concrete request of what you would like next time (Please call me if you even think you might be late).
Now, an I-Statement does not guarantee a response. Ideally, the person will apologize and next time will call if he is going to be late. But often people will not respond with more than a “yeah, sure.” You might have to circle back to this topic (perhaps with technique #1), but it does allow you to get an issue out into the open in real time, so your position is clear. That can make it easier to address later and will keep you from stewing about it resentfully.
4. Invite their feedback and use Active Listening to gather information and acknowledge their feelings or situation.
Example: I notice you have been have not been meeting all your commitments on time. I’m wondering what is going on with you about that?
Once you make the opening bid, your job is to listen carefully. As the person goes along, you may stop to recap by saying, “Let me see if I got this right.” Then identify their feelings as well as their situation. Even if they have not expressed a feeling explicitly, you can make a guess: “It sounds like you are feeling overwhelmed because you have taken on some extra projects, and now you are finding it hard to juggle everything.” Always end with, “Is that right?” If they correct you, just repeat their correction back to them, “Oh, so it is not that you are overwhelmed, it is that you feel resentful that so much extra work is getting piled on to you, and that doesn’t feel fair.” This is really important information. Overwhelm requires a different kind of solution than fairness does. Without finding the true reason, you might jump to the wrong conclusion, make the wrong adjustment and have the other person really feel like you don’t get him.
This is the best technique for really stepping into the other person’s shoes and examining the impact the problem has on them. That is going to allow you to find a solution that near as possible gets both your needs met. At the end of the day, even if it is someone working underneath you or is a child, if you do not have their good will at heart, life is not going to run smoothly. It is always better to find win win solutions.
Having difficult conversations is a skill. If it is hard for you now, keep practicing these techniques. As you become easier with them, you will find you are so relaxed in the face of conflict, such conversations will no longer feel difficult. If you would like to practice these skills or figure out how you are gong to approach a difficult conversation without falling apart, contact me for FREE Peaceful Resolution Strategy Session and we will create the plan you need.