Firing a client.
Ending a romantic relationship.
Addressing staff behavior problems.
Challenging the racist relative at family dinner.
Talking about finances and debt.
The above are but a few examples of difficult conversations we face in life. For the purpose of this article, we will focus only on difficult conversations from the client-coach perspective and how they can impact our work and business. However, becoming better at work-related difficult conversations is bound to have a positive impact on your personal ones as well. Win-win!
What Is a Difficult Conversation?
We can define difficult conversation as a verbal exchange in which we anticipate a number of negative reactions — such as resistance, hurt feelings, anger, or hostility — from our counterparts.
Difficult conversations are painted with a brush of big emotions, typically motivated by strong opinions, entrenched values, and other core beliefs. This is precisely why navigating difficult conversations can be so tricky: they touch deeply personal chords and thus have the ability to threaten or be a source of shame.
In the book Crucial Conversations, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler define these interactions by three determining factors:
- Opinions vary
- Stakes are high
- Emotions are strong
Why Are Difficult Conversations So Scary?
Difficult conversations make most of us shudder because of the perceived danger they imply: almost no one loves the thought of stepping into the proverbial arena and fighting the lion.
In our own life, the lion may be our client’s resistance to admit that their drinking is hindering their weight loss, or their anger when they are informed that a comment they made was inappropriate and will not be tolerated. The process is the same: we fear confrontation.
Our limbic system may be to blame for this fear. The limbic system has been dubbed as our lizard brain for its primitive focus on the simplistic, yet essential, basic needs of life: survival, feeding, and reproduction.
Specifically, our amygdala sits in charge of emotion, addiction, mood, and many other mental and emotional processes. Here is where our fight, flight or freeze response kicks in at the first sight of a perceived threat.
Enter difficult conversations and why we sabotage them, hold back from them, and avoid them at all cost:
What if they get mad at me?
What if they yell?
What if they no longer like me for bringing this up?
Will they go off on a rage?
All of the above are perceived threats. Amygdala overdrive! Thank you, lizard brain. Now take a seat.
Difficult Conversations: A New Perspective
Here is a healthy dose of reality: difficult conversations cannot be avoided forever. If you must step up and conduct them, why not do so gracefully and in a way that is beneficial to all parties involved?
Difficult conversations are the backbone of all relationships.
If becoming skilled at difficult conversations will make you a better coach, boss, partner and parent, isn’t it worth the time and effort to master the skill? We certainly think so!
Confrontation Does Not Have to Equal Conflict
Perhaps the most liberating perspective to be gained is this: confrontation does not have to equal conflict.
We can confront things that bother us without the conversation ending in a fight. We can address pain points without being disliked by our counterparts. We can communicate effectively and respectfully, in a way that leaves all parties feeling heard.
Once we realize that difficult conversations have the potential to be a driving force toward positive change, we become more willing to lean in and have those conversations — the right way. There’s much to be gained from this practice.
Who knows, you might even end up becoming one of those unique people who actually enjoy and dive right into difficult conversations! Hey, it happened to this author; it could happen to you, too!
Success in a Difficult Conversation
Success of a difficult conversation can be achieved by keeping in mind the following pointers:
Avoid Speaking in Absolutes
Words like never, always, every time, everything, and nothing are rarely true, and they quickly undermine the quality of the conversation. They can cause your client to become defensive and focus on listing off the times they have indeed complied — hardly the outcome you desire.
- Instead of “You never follow my recommendations,” try “Sometimes my recommendations aren’t followed, and I’m wondering what changes we can make to better your adherence.”
- Instead of “Every time I ask for your food journal you have an excuse,” try “I’ve noticed logging your food journal has been difficult, and I’d like to help in making that process easier for you.”
- Instead of “You always drink during the week,” try “I believe drinking has remained a challenge, and I’d like to explore how we can improve that for benefit of your goals.”
Approach the Conversation With Curiosity and Openness
If you’re functioning from a standpoint of wanting to be “right,” you’re already setting yourself up for failure. Aim for problem-solving, rather than right vs. wrong dynamics. Remain receptive to what the other person has to say. Information may arise that changes what you believed to be true, and you can only discover this by being open.
- Instead of “This is the way it should be,” try “I’d like to hear your input: how do you think we should go about this?”
- Instead of “If you want to reach your goals, this is what has to be done,” try “I want to hear your thoughts: what do you think needs to happen next to get closer to your goal?”
To be clear, what needs to happen for your client to reach their goal may not change. But, by asking for their input, you are including them in the conversation and problem-solving process, instead of just dictating orders.
Take Ownership of Your Own Feelings
No one can make you feel a certain way — those feelings belong to you. By taking ownership of our feelings we avoid falling into the blame game — a positive step to effective communication.
Instead of “You make me upset when you make insensitive comments during class,” try “I feel upset when you make that type of comment because to me it reflects a lack of respect for others.”
Helpful examples of ways to frame your viewpoint without making accusations or placing blame others may sound like:
- “To me…”
- “In my view…”
- “It is my opinion that…”
- “I think…”
- “I may be wrong, but the way I see it…”
In the end, we can never truly know what the other person is thinking or feeling, and their intentions may be vastly different from what we believe them to be.
Reach an Agreement
In the most successful difficult conversations, an agreement is reached. Both parties feel like they can adhere to it, and the agreement seems fair and balanced to both.
“We tried sticking to your diet plan for one month, and that didn’t quite work out. What do you think would be a reasonable time frame for us to test instead? Two weeks? One week?”
“I think we both have given this a really good try, but we don’t seem to be a good fit for each other. I’d be more than happy to recommend you a few colleagues in the area who would be eager to work with you. Would this be helpful to you?”
Difficult conversations have an amazing potential to help us grow beyond our comfort zone and learn beyond our limitations. One of the gravest mistakes we can do is postponing difficult conversations, since problems tend to fester and get worse the longer we procrastinate.
Leaning into difficult conversations is an act of empowerment.
By making the decision to confront the challenge at hand, you enable yourself to act responsibly, maturely, honestly and respectfully — as opposed to avoiding, being anxious, and reacting. Talk about a change in dynamics!
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