Successfully Handling Difficult Conversations
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)
How do you feel when you need to talk to your child, your child’s teacher, your spouse or someone else about a touchy topic? Are you excited to address this important issue or do you feel like running in the opposite direction? Most people feel a significant amount of anxiety when they think about addressing a situation which is emotionally charged and opinions differ.
When approaching a difficult conversation you have three basic options:
- Choose to ignore it and hope the situation magically gets better.
- Launch head first into the conversation and handle it poorly.
- Prepare ahead of time and handle the conversation well.
While it would be great if challenging situations got better on their own, since this rarely happens let’s look at how you can prepare to handle the conversation well.
Preparing for the Conversation
You will increase the odds of having a productive conversation if you prepare ahead of time. Begin by considering your motive for having this conversation.
In the book Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
, the authors identify three important questions to ask yourself when preparing for a crucial conversation:
- What do you really want for yourself?
- What do you really want for others?
- What do you want to avoid?
Answering these questions is key to holding the right conversation and sticking with it even when the going gets tough.
For example, when Mark suspected his son, Jake, was stealing money from his wallet he wanted to discuss it with him. What Mark really wanted for himself was to understand why Jake was taking money without asking and to eventually be able to trust his son again. He wanted Jake to feel comfortable asking for what he needed instead of stealing it. Finally, he wanted to avoid seriously damaging his relationship with his son.
Opening the Conversation
How you open the conversation is critical. Beginning with an accusation like “I know you’ve been stealing money from my wallet.” is likely to make the other person defensive.
A better way to start is to share the facts. Facts are the least controversial. It’s the conclusions you draw from the facts that may or may not be correct.
In Mark’s case, although he thinks Jake is taking the money he doesn’t know this for sure. Maybe his wife has ran out of cash and took some of out of his wallet. Or perhaps Jake’s younger sister has been taking money for her play store. If Mark begins by accusing Jake of taking the money when Jake really did not take the money, his relationship with Jake will definitely be damaged – something he wanted to avoid.
Mark began by sharing his facts saying “I’m concerned because there has been money missing out of my wallet lately. What are your thoughts on this?” Jake then had a chance to respond. In this case Jake confessed to taking the money in order to give it to a classmate as payment for not being bullied. Once Mark understood what was going on, he was able to work with Jake on other options for dealing with the bullying.
Staying in Conversation
When people do not feel safe in a conversation, they turn to fight or flight. If you notice that your child is withdrawing from the conversation or getting angry and defensive, you need to restore your child’s feeling of safety.
One way to do this is to clarify what you do and do not intend to be communicating. For example, Jake might have responded to his dad “You always blame me for everything!” Mark could have clarified “I am not trying to blame you. I do want to understand why there is money missing from my wallet.”
Another approach to restoring safety is to acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Mark might have said “It sounds like you feel angry and misunderstood.” The fact that his dad has recognized his feelings is likely to calm Jake down.
If emotions are so hot that holding a reasonable conversation is not possible, then it’s wise to take a break to allow time for everyone to calm down. Decide on a time to continue the conversation so that it’s clear you are not dropping the topic for good.
Concluding the Conversation
Often a difficult conversation will involve making decisions. It’s easy for participants to leave a conversation with very different ideas about the decisions and commitments which were made. You can reduce the possibility of miscommunication by writing down the major points discussed along with any decisions made.
If you’ve brainstormed ideas for solving the problem, be sure to write those ideas down along with the idea you decided to try first. Figure out when to get together again to review how the plan is working. You can always adjust the plan or try a different idea.
You will certainly have the opportunity for many difficult conversations with your children and others. The better you get at handling these crucial conversations, the more likely you are to enjoy success in your relationships.