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5 Tips for Having Hard Conversations

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Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. ~Douglas Stone

My friend, author and artist Christine Mason Miller, once wrote in her book Ordinary Sparkling Moments that communication between people is like a ball — you have to throw it so that the other person can catch it.

If you don’t? Someone’s going to get whacked in the face, really hard. That’s not going to promote communication.

Most people spend a lot of time just trying to work up the courage to have a difficult conversation with someone. This is a tough space, isn’t it?

No one likes to initiate a conversation in which they know that they need to communicate that there’s a conflict between them.

After you’ve checked to make sure that you’re not manipulating the work when you decide to speak your truth, here are a few guidelines to more successfully throw that ball so that someone else can catch it.

1. Take Responsibility for Resentments

If you haven’t told the person that you’ve been upset with them for a chronic pattern, you need to take responsibility for that — that’s on you.

Telling them about the past year of wrongs they’ve committed is not likely to go anywhere good, especially if the history of things you’re upset about involve conversations that are more than a month old.

At that point, you’re putting someone in a position of trying to remember what was said.

After more than a few weeks, be honest: No one can remember exactly who said what with 100 percent accuracy, much less the intonation of how it was said or the context in which it was said.

You’ve got to focus on one recent issue, and you’ve got to ease into talking about it, not hit them over the head with the five things they said or did wrong.

2. Take Responsibility for Your Feelings

“Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean they did it.”

This is a mantra that has made all the difference in my relationships, especially in my marriage.

You might be convinced that someone’s behavior means X, Y or Z.

You also might be taking it personally. Even if it seems that this must be impossible, this warrants deep, deep consideration, because while I can’t say this with scientific accuracy, I’m guessing that 90 percent of conflicts are about people taking things personally.

The quickly written email? The voicemail someone forgot to return? Your husband’s seeming disinterest in the magazine article you want to talk about? Your friend sending the birthday card a week late?

These are the things that people get angry about, and it’s not personal. People are busy. People forget things. People aren’t interested in the same things.

Stop making it mean something — especially something about how much they do or don’t love you. Consider how it might feel if you were on the other side of this. What compassion would you want when you do something in haste? When you forget?

If you walk into a conversation with accusations, without first taking responsibility for where you’re taking things personally, then you’re walking into the conversation with blame. That’s not a meeting of two equals who respect one another.

If you’re not respecting someone else, it’s hard to expect the same in return.

3. Use a Common Language

For years, I couldn’t understand how or why it was that I’d use all the respectful “I” messages in the world, and then someone would accuse me of “reading from a script” when I was talking with them about an area of conflict.

Wasn’t using “I” statements taking total ownership for my part? Wasn’t phrasing everything as a request instead of demand supposed to promote more connection?

It does, but for people who are not versed in this style of speaking, it sounds distant. Arrogant. Perhaps even a little bit manipulative. You don’t sound like your normal, everyday, conversational self. They can tell, and they wonder what’s up.

Find ways to communicate your needs and requests in such a way that it truly sounds like you. Again, you’re throwing the ball so that they can catch it, because that’s the only way that two people can truly communicate.

4. Give People Time to Respond

Many of us have grown up with parents who, when they wanted us to stop a behavior, said something like, “If you don’t stop that right now, you’re going to be put in time out!”

The consequences of our behavior were made immediately clear to us. You do X? You’re going to get Y.

It can be tempting to go to that place when sorting through a conflict, and it’s not uncommon in a society infused with self-help messages to find someone distorting those messages, getting just a tad bit high-minded.

“If she doesn’t stop doing that, then she’s being a toxic friend and thus I must not associate with her any longer!”

Problem: Bringing that energy into a conversation is not helpful.

Now, when someone’s yelling at you, doing something dangerous or has impulse control issues, then yes, you’ve got to let people know the impact of their behavior and what your boundary is.

It’s critical that you say in such cases, “I feel disrespected when you _______, and if that doesn’t stop, I’m going to get off the phone.”

But when the conflict is about everyday life and living? Be open to negotiation, a response from the other person, rather than throwing up a pre-emptive boundary.

Give people space to take your thoughts in, breathe with them and feel like the two of you are mutually working out options— not like they’re going to get a consequence if they don’t do things your way.

Good communication actually promotes connection, not one person’s agenda. Ask yourself before speaking or sending that email: If I heard someone say this to me, would I feel closer and more connected?

5. Come to Difficult Conversations with Several Solutions

Most people think mostly about how to tell someone that they are upset.

Less attention is given to how to find mutually-agreeable solutions.

Let’s say that a friend forgot your birthday. You know that a part of you is taking it personally — of course she still loves you and forgetting your birthday was totally unintentional.

At the same time, you notice that some distance has cropped up between you. You notice that when she forgot this birthday, you suddenly remembered every other time that she forgot something important to you.

It occurs to you that perhaps this is a pattern, one that you’d like to stop, because it’s causing disconnection in the relationship.

This is all great content to notice.

Now, before you have the conversation, dial down into what your desired outcomes are. You want connection, right? She probably wants that, too.

Take the emphasis away from getting an apology from her. That makes you the wronged party and her the bad guy.

Instead, put emphasis on how you can bring more connection into your relationship. Brainstorm solutions. What are some ways that all parties involved can get their connection needs met?

That might mean that one solution is acceptance. Sometimes we need to love people where they are at, rather than wanting them to show up differently.

You might need to get over it when it comes to her forgetting things. Other times, there’s an opportunity for humor. Maybe you two can strike a deal, keeping it light-hearted: “New friendship rule: She who forgets birthdays springs for a fancy restaurant!”

By all means, go into the conversation prepared to respectfully share your feelings and be honest. At the same time, when the focus of the conversation is that someone needs to apologize and change their behavior for you to be happy, most people are going to feel a sort of grudging resentment at being called to task.

At the end of the day, throwing the ball so that someone else can catch it is about showing up with love.

When the desire for connection between equals is at the forefront of the conversation, it’s likely to feel less charged, and there’s a greater likelihood that everyone involved will get their needs met.

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About the author

Kate Swoboda is a life coach, speaker and writer who specializes in courage. You can learn more about her at YourCourageousLife.com, where she writes about courageous living, integrity, and ferocious love. Life Coaches can check out her resources for business and leveraging your practice over at YourCourageousBlueprint.com

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3 thoughts on 5 Tips for Having Hard Conversations

  1. Thanks for sharing the guidelines. It is very informative and helpful. great post

  2. This is YH. Kate, thank you for sharing this article. Point one and two of this article do resonate with me.

    It is so true that we are the only who take the responsibilities for we thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.. The law, Cause and Effect, governs this universe. We reap what we have sowed.

    I really agree with Point 5 which has shown some good solutions.

    Difficult conversations, negative feelings come from our ego. Let go of our ego and build up the relationship with “ourselves” first. Eventually, we will know how to overcome difficult conversations.

  3. Revised part of my last comment:
    It is so true that we are the only “ones” who take the responsibilities for “our” thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.. The law, Cause and Effect, governs this universe. We reap what we have sowed.

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