Have you ever had to hold a difficult conversation, the kind in which you have to get across a message that is very likely not going to be well received? (No, I’m not talking about explaining to your spouse why you spent all your retirement money backing your favourite hockey team, although that certainly falls under the category of “difficult.”)
You may have decided you had to lay off a longtime employee. You may want to tell a friend that his attire is inappropriate. You may need to let a colleague know that her work is unacceptable.
Whatever the case, you know that feeling in the pit of your stomach as you face this highly uncomfortable and often very awkward situation.
There are ways of preparing that can help frame the conversation for the best results and make it more productive.
But before you even begin, ask yourself what your purpose is in having this conversation. What is the problem, why are you having to approach this person? (It should be not because you simply love to hear yourself talk … and if it is, then you have an even bigger problem that cannot possibly be addressed here.) Ultimately, you need to be clear about what you hope to achieve.
You also need to be honest with yourself and determine if you have been part of the problem. If you do have a role in a situation that needs rectifying, accepting your responsibilities right up front is a good way of demonstrating that you are not simply blaming the other person for everything. (In other words, while your five-year-old emotional self may be saying: “Not my fault! Not my fault!” your mouth needs to express something else.)
Practising ahead of time what you are going to say and how you are going to get your message across, is also a good idea. You can do this in your head or in front of a mirror. But it’s often better to role play with another person who can view the message from another perspective. That way you can get some constructive feedback and fine-tune your words.
When you do initiate the conversation, you need to be absolutely clear about the issue. Be direct. Beating around the bush will only make the situation more difficult. Don’t let yourself be sidetracked. It can be easy to drift off topic (especially if you feel bad about what you have to say and your subconscious feelings of guilt – reasonable or not – are working overtime).
Also, recognize that few people are going to really listen if the finger is being pointed at them and they are being made to feel that the problems are all on them. Framing the conversation in terms of “How can we address this problem? How can we make it better?” is much more productive than “This is your problem. Fix it.” (Granted, there are times when that particular phrase is appropriate.)
Although you have no control over how the other person is going to respond, you control your own behaviour and words, no matter how frustrated or angry you feel.
Keep your emotions in check. Remind yourself that yelling, regardless of how much you want to, is not an effective way to deal with the issue and is only going to make things worse. If things get hairy, take a deep breath, remind yourself why you are here, relax and get back on track. It’s all right to be quiet, too. If the other person is getting upset, be quiet and let them get it out of their system.
Finally, if things seem to be really getting out of control, walk away. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break, letting everyone cool down and trying again.
Just know that, ultimately, you can’t avoid delivering a difficult message.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.