Do you dread difficult conversations? I don’t know anyone who looks forward to them, although rhinos do tend to mind them less than hedgehogs. Unfortunately, difficult conversations are a part of life; fortunately, there are some ways to make them a little easier.
Often when we’re caught in a difficult conversation, we want either the circumstances or the other person to change. Very often, they don’t. Or won’t. But making a difficult conversation easier starts with what we can actually control: our own expectations and attitudes.
Here are some practical steps to take:
Begin by asking yourself: what do I hope to get out of this?
Sometimes we aren’t certain what we want – which can make it pretty confusing for the other person. Figure out what your goal is. Is this about the other person changing something? About just feeling heard by them? If the main issue is that you just want to get it off your chest, that’s very different than asking for a specific change in behavior from the other person.
Next, consider: what will happen if I don’t achieve my goal?
It sounds pessimistic, but it can be helpful to think of possible negative outcomes. What if they steamroll me when I want them to listen, or if they turn down my request? This isn’t about giving into anxiety. It’s about being realistic. Thinking through the worst thing that is likely to happen can actually ease our worries.
Then ask: what will happen if I do achieve my goal?
Imagining this possibility allows us to be honest about the level of satisfaction we actually need. If I achieve my goal, will I be willing to let things go? If I just want to be listened to, and the other person does listen, is that enough? Or would I still be dissatisfied because I actually want an apology? Imagining a positive outcome can help us hone in on our goal and place realistic boundaries about what we want to get out of the conversation.
Prepare to frame your conversation.
Sometimes we act as though we expect others to read our minds. We can’t anticipate someone else knowing what we hope to achieve from a difficult conversation: we have to tell them. If you just want the other person to listen, say so. Unless you have explained where you are coming from, they might be tempted to reply, or help you problem-solve. No one’s perfect, but it is always helpful to know what the other person would like. Be clear. If you would like an apology, say, “I would like an apology.” Expecting someone else to be a mind-reader is never fair.
Finally, evaluate your own frame of mind honestly.
Are you overcome with anger, fear, or some other strong emotion that might overpower the conversation? Are you willing to listen to the other person if they want to continue talking? Are you open to listening, or are you just too upset to have a dialogue right now? Are you finally feeling confident enough to speak up for yourself? You may want to wait to calm down a bit, or you may want to strike while the iron is hot and you feel ready. Chances are, you’re never going to feel 100% prepared, but it is helpful to reach some level of interior peace before engaging in a difficult conversation.
Whether it’s at work, at home, or in our local communities, difficult conversations are inevitable. They do, however, get a little easier when we have clear goals, realistic expectations, and an appropriate attitude.