How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Finding our voice can be a difficult task, especially if we’re afraid of hurting someone else’s feelings or appearing needy, whiny, demanding, or inappropriate.  Yet, stating what we need or believe is essential to being authentic, having intimate relationships and resolving both spoken and unspoken conflicts.  Having a difficult, but necessary conversation is an important skill, and the how-to of it has been broken down into manageable parts by Patterson, Grenny, MacMillan and Switzler in the book Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.    Everyone I have ever talked to who has read this book has loved it, so I’m going to summarize the steps here. You might decide you can do this and wish to go get the book for more detail.

Admittedly, it is a somewhat complicated process, but you can practice parts of it at a time and improve bit by bit.  There are some parts that you naturally do already, and parts where you might need some practice and more guidance from the book.  Even if you don’t do all of it, just improving elements of your approach to difficult conversations can make a difference.

1.  Start with Heart – Figure out what you really want to achieve and focus on that.  Be honest with yourself, and refuse the Sucker’s Choice.  In other words, avoid the lose/lose scenario, such as “She must  change or she doesn’t love me.”

2.  Learn to Look – Ever look back on a conversation that has gone south and only in retrospect notice when it happened?   Learn to notice when a conversation becomes crucial – you or your partner may go to silence (avoiding, withdrawing) or violence (forcing meaning into conversation such as “this must mean you….”, controlling, labeling, or attacking).

3.  Make it Safe – Approach the conversation with mutual purpose/goals and respect:  “Lord help me forgive those who sin DIFFERENTLY than I”.  Even diametrically opposed groups often have very similar goals.  For example, if you’re about to begin yet another argument with your spouse, remember you both really have the same goal of having a happy marriage, and that you’re both trying your best (even if it doesn’t appear that way).

If you find yourself in a tense conversation then first, APOLOGIZE for anything you might have done to contribute.  I realize this step is extremely difficult (or way too easy) for some people.  Remember it takes two to tango, and no matter how right or culpable you believe you are, you both have contributed to the problem, even if one person only played an unwitting role in a misunderstanding.  Then offer CONTRAST – say both what you want and don’t want to accomplish with the conversation.  For example, you can say “I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to change you or be critical, but I do want to make sure we clearly understand each other.”  Next, CRIB – Commit to mutual purpose (such as being able to communicate openly in a civilized manner), Recognize the goals/purpose behind their approach (they want the same thing), Invent a mutual purpose (such as having a peaceful and productive working relationship), Brainstorm new strategies (such as agreeing to engage in conversation before the situation gets too hot).  In other words, treat your partner like a partner, not an obstacle or a problem, in resolving your tense situation.

4. Master Your Story – Notice your role in this drama and reinterpret your role, avoiding the victim, villain and helpless roles.

5.  State Your Path – Share your facts, tell your story, and ASK FOR others’ paths, using tentative language, such as “It appears to me that the way you see this is…  Where did I misinterpret?”.  Invite their feedback and contribution.

6.  Explore Others’ Paths – Invite their facts and ask them to retrace their path to their conclusion. Use ABC  – Agree, Build on what you both agree upon and Contrast the areas where you differ.

“Most arguments consist of battles over the 5-10% of the facts and stories that people disagree over”

7.  Move to Action –  Decide how to decide how to move forward together.  According to the authors, there are four methods for decision making:  command (one person decides), consult (get someone else to help us decide), consensus, or vote.  CONSENSUS may not always be possible or desirable.  Don’t pretend everyone will get their first choice, but agree to allow no martyrs, undermining after a decision is made, or I Told You So’s.   Agree in advance to come up with a decision everyone can support.  End with ACTION – who, what when and how to follow up.

Like all complex skills, this will require a phased approach and practice.  At least you’re trying to improve, as pretty much the majority of us can do better in handling difficult conversations.

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