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How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations

By Chuck Doran and Daniele Natali Goldberg

We’ve all had to deal with difficult conversations. Examples include discussing poor performance with an employee or requesting improved conditions with a supervisor at work, talking to a parent or grandparent about limitations in their mobility and responsibilities as they age, or breaking up with partner or confronting problematic behavior at home. These conversations are important to have, and they can potentially hurt relationships that are important to us. Because of this anxiety and dread, many people avoid them altogether.

However, with proper preparation, we can make these conversations less difficult and more constructive. How can we prepare ourselves for these conversations in ways that will help us grow, as opposed to cause us anxiety, self-consciousness and discomfort? How can we shift our difficult conversations into fruitful grounds for movement forward, for new ways of working together, for easier ways of communicating with each other?


Why are difficult conversations so difficult?

To understand how we can make these conversations easier, let’s glance at why they are so difficult for us. Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, believe that every difficult conversation is composed of three different – and equally important – conversations:

  1. The “What Happened?” conversation,
  2. The “Feelings” conversation, and
  3. The “Identity” conversation.

Difficult conversations are about so much more than just the topic at hand; our sense of self, recognition, and fairness is at stake. This is why it is so difficult for us to talk about what matters most. However, understanding this structure is the first step towards having better conversations, and it allows you to prepare strategically and effectively.


The “What Happened?” Conversation

We each have our own story and different understandings of what happened in any given situation. When those understandings intersect or are at odds, they can cause conflict. Here are some ways to prepare for these difficult conversations:

Preparation

  • Think carefully about how to structure your approach to the conversation. Your goal is to be curious and engage with the problem, adopting a learning stance aimed at understanding. Difficult Conversations suggests the following approach:
    1. Describe your experience. Be specific about their actions and/or behaviors. Rather than simply saying, “You were rude,” name their behavior from your perspective, such as, “During the meeting, you began speaking in the middle of my presentation.”
    2. Tell them what its impact was on you. Again, be specific and try using “I” statements rather than “you” statements (“I felt dismissed and wanted my contributions to be appreciated,” vs. “You were dismissive and didn’t appreciate my contributions.”)
    3. Explain your assumptions about their intentions. For instance, if you are concerned that your opinions and thoughts are not being taken seriously, present this as one possible conclusion that you want to test: “I’m concerned that my thoughts aren’t being taken seriously because of x, and I’m interested in understanding more about where you’re coming from on the matter.”
  • Shift from a “but” standpoint to an “and” approach. When you follow a statement with “…but,” it can come across like you are negating the first half of the sentence. In the example above, you might be tempted to say, “I want to keep working here, but I need to feel more respected.” While both statements are important to share, the word “but” makes it feel like they are opposing ideas. Shifting the sentence to an “and” standpoint can make it sound more positive and clear: “I want to keep working here, and I want my ideas and contributions respected.”

The “Feelings” Conversation

Feelings are an important part of any conflict. If they aren’t driving the problem you are having with the other side, the existence of conflict brings about some level of negative emotions. Because of this, an effective approach to managing difficult conversations requires a conversation about feelings and emotions.

Preparation

  • Figure out how you are feeling about this issue. Hurt, annoyed, sad, frustrated, confused, isolated, disappointed, unappreciated. Identify as many emotions are you can: the spectrum is wide and complex.
  • Reframe blame. When you find yourself blaming the other side, ask yourself: what is the feeling underlying my blame? Instead of blaming, say: “Here’s what I’ve contributed, here’s what I think you have contributed, and, more importantly, I ended up feeling x way.” If your spouse has failed, once again, to do their share of the chores, you may be tempted to say, “You’re being selfish/thoughtless/lazy.” Instead, try, “I complete my share of the housework every week, and lately you have not done yours, which makes me feel unappreciated.”
  • Normalize your experiences and feelings. Strong emotions can be difficult to manage, and they are an important cue that we care about the topic at hand. If we feel angry, sad or nervous about confronting someone, it means a conversation (or issue, person, relationship), is important to us and needs attention. The stress, discomfort or sadness that you are experiencing is normal and legitimate. This recognition can take away some pressure, help you think about the situation differently, and ease your approach to having the conversation.

The “Identity” Conversation

Difficult conversations can pose a threat to our identity and the way we view ourselves. This threat elevates our emotions and reactions, and it can cause us to withdraw from difficult conversations.

Preparation

  • Reflect on the aspects of your identity that are most important to you. The more you are aware of the threats to your identity that trigger you, the more prepared you will be if they come up in a difficult conversation.
  • Think about how difficult conversations might threaten your identity. If the other side reacts badly, what might trigger you? What do you think it says about you? How might you react, and how do you want to respond?
  • Similarly, think how your statements might threaten the other person’s identity. Sharing your disappointment with an employee’s work performance, for instance, calls into question their identity as a competent, reliable, or intelligent person. If you are prepared for the possibility of a negative reaction, you can plan a more effective response. Most importantly, be prepared to listen.

As you journey into your difficult conversations, try to set realistic expectations. We call these conversations difficult for good reason, and even the best framework cannot eliminate bad feelings and negative reactions from either party. You won’t be able to completely eliminate your fear and anxiety, but you will be able to reduce and better manage them. View difficult conversations as an opportunity – for growth, change, and improvement – and take time to prepare in order to reap the benefit of those opportunities.

Preparing for difficult conversations does not make these conversations easy – only easier.

To learn more about effectively manging difficult conversations and building your negotiation skills, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org.

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