How to have difficult conversations, in which no one gets hurt.

This evening I'm presenting a workshop on how to have difficult conversations - to fellow psychologists. 

Not what you'd expect is it? Surely professionals trained to diagnose, treat and support people facing some of life's most challenging and complex situations would also be skilled at navigating a tough discussion? 

But no. Take us from the safe space of a consulting room and ask us to raise a sensitive topic with an angry spouse, challenge an imposing boss on a work decision or even confront the cranky neighbour about their barking dog and we struggle along with the best of them.

Difficult conversations, or 'crucial conversations' as they're called in my favourite book on the topic, are challenging. Some of us avoid them (*sheepishly puts her hand up*). Some of us tackle them head on and next thing we know we're embroiled in an argument. Other start out strong and forthright only to find ourselves overwhelmed by tears and frustration, still no solution in sight.

Thankfully there are some pretty simple tips and techniques for fronting up to a difficult discussion. As I prepare my presentation I thought I'd share them here with you too; just in case you're also figuring out how to broach a touchy subject.

Why are some discussions so hard?

The authors of Crucial Conversations reckon that there are three conditions that make a discussion challenging.

  1. High stakes. The outcome of this discussion has a big impact on you.
  2. Strong emotion. No ambivalence here. This topic gives you all the feels - the good and the bad.
  3. Opposing views. You think one thing. Your discussion partner sees it differently.

Beware the emotion.

Some people handle a difficult discussion with aplomb. They're cool, calm and collected. Important messages are conveyed clearly. No-one gets upset. A mutually agreeable solution is found. Everyone is happy. Tick. Sorted.

Of course these people are the minority. Most of us muddle through trailing degrees of conversation carnage, largely because our logic is hijacked by our emotion.

You might recognise the signs: The nervous energy, the sweaty palms, the flip flop tummy. Or maybe your hackles are up and your spoiling for a fight before you even utter the first word to your conversational nemesis. You're anticipating the argument; mentally preparing your defence. Or just hoping against hope that you can hold it all together without dissolving into tears.

Our brains are wired to perceive threats (and threats to your ego count!) and unless we step in with some conscious management of our emotions they can quickly swamp our logic. 

Give this a go!

Here are the 5 steps for successfully navigating a challenging conversation.

Step 1: Have a plan. Sounds obvious but it's amazing how often we launch into these discussions without giving much thought to what we want to achieve.

What's your goal for the conversation? What outcome do you want? This is not about winning or punishing the other person, or keeping the peace.  What solution do you want from this conversation? Think it through first. Be as specific as possible and bear that goal in mind throughout.

Step 2: Put yourself in their shoes. You'll need your imagination for this part. Consider for a moment where the other person in this conversation is coming from. What's driving the response or reaction that you anticipate from them? Are they frustrated? Angry? Scared? Confused? Do they see or understand the situation in the same way that you do? How do you know? Are you making assumptions about their point of view? Try to understand their perspective. You don't have to agree with it but you increase the chances of a useful outcome if you go in prepared for their perspective.

Step 3. Ask questions. A key feature of any useful conversation is that both parties share their thoughts, listen to each other and build on (not destroy) the contribution of the other party to work towards a mutual solution. You can only do that if at least one party asks questions. Otherwise it's a slanging match.

Be the one to put your opinion on hold and seek to understand. Ask questions. Clarify. Use 'solution-focused' questions such as, 'How do you think we could...' and 'What is the best outcome for both of us?'

Step 4: Look for the win, with respect. Somewhere in your conversation there will be a mutual purpose. A place where you can both win, at least a little bit. Look for that place. Maintain respect, acknowledge the other person's frustration or anger or distress (as well as your own) and remember your goal for the conversation. Stay focused on that outcome and try not to let the emotion overwhelm you.

Step 5: Practice. This stuff ain't easy and like anything, practice makes better, if not perfect. The next time you have to have a difficult conversation, try these tips, but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't go to plan. 

Remember, even psychologists find this stuff hard ;-)