Saying or hearing the words, “We need to talk,” whether it’s in the workplace or in your personal life, can be a source of tension and conflict but there are ways to manage conversations that have the potential to be difficult.
Difficult conversations can range from speaking to a family member about concerning behaviour, to ending a romantic relationship, to navigating care options with elderly parents. In the workplace, challenging conversations include raising concerns about performance or unacceptable conduct, although predictably talking about remuneration has been ranked the most difficult conversation, with 33% of those surveyed stating that they avoided conversations about their pay.i
Can you remember a time when you’ve had to initiate a conversation you’d rather avoid? Or when someone approached you for ‘the talk’? Perhaps even now you have a challenging conversation looming that you need to have, but keep avoiding? You’re not alone, research has found that one in four people have been putting off a tough conversation for more than six months, while one in 10 have been doing so for a year.ii
The thing is, avoiding it usually doesn’t help. If handled the right way, an open conversation may even improve the situation or strengthen a relationship, and at the very least your perspective will be better understood. So, let’s look at some ways to tackle a hard topic.
It helps to give some thought to what you are trying to achieve by having the conversation. Examine your motives carefully and be clear about what you would like as the ideal outcome.
It can be beneficial to do some “role play” in your head before the chat. To prepare yourself for what you think will be said and practice the best way of expressing yourself. Having said that, it’s impossible to prepare for all eventualities and you do need to accept the fact that you are entering into an open-ended dialogue that could go in any direction.
While it’s always tempting to go straight in with your thoughts on the matter, it can be beneficial to start the conversation with some questions to obtain a sense of how the other party feels. Listen to their perspective with an open mind without interrupting and ask their permission to give you the opportunity to respond if you are finding it hard to get a word in.
Use your words
When sharing your ideas, it can be helpful to use collaborative language such as ‘we’ or ‘us’ instead of ‘you’ and ‘me’. Acknowledge that you understand and appreciate the other parties’ perspective by using phrasing such as “so what you are telling me is…”.
It’s a good idea to use ‘I’ statements. So, instead of saying, ‘You don’t care about me!’, which can make the other person defensive, try: ‘I feel upset with when you…’.
Try not to talk in generalities. Get to the point, describe exactly what you want from the discussion – do you want an apology, your point of view acknowledged, or change in behaviour moving forward? This will help provide structure to the discussion and a clear way forward.
Look for solutions
The ideal outcome is a mutually acceptable solution to the problem at hand. To avoid the discussion becoming adversarial ask for ideas ie “What are your thoughts are on how we can move forward and work through this issue together?”
Of course, not all conversations are going to have a happy ending. There will be people, situations or behaviours that you just can’t talk through – and that’s okay. By agreeing to disagree you have both at least aired your respective viewpoints.
You should also be proud of yourself for taking part in a difficult conversation. It takes real courage. And remember each challenging conversation you have is a learning experience making the next one that little bit easier.