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Difficult Conversations Made Easier
Submitted by the USPS Employee Assistance Program
Difficult conversations can happen in any number of situations—with a spouse, child, friend, co-worker or even a neighbor. Although there are different types of difficult conversations, they all have certain elements in common: they involve some level of discomfort or they wouldn’t be considered difficult.
Difficult conversations are intended to raise awareness of a problem and seek a solution. Unfortunately, not all difficult conversations fulfill both of those intentions because, in our discomfort, it can be easy to lose sight of what we wanted to accomplish with the conversation or we might not have taken the time to clarify what we wanted in the first place. The purpose of this article is to present information to help make these conversations less uncomfortable and more successful at solving problems.
A big part of making difficult conversations less difficult is making a plan. You want to plan to manage your own thoughts, emotions and expectations, as well as deal with potential complications. It may be helpful to write down some thoughts, especially when you are just starting to make changes in your approach to difficult conversations.
Many conversations can be made less difficult if you think about it less as a confrontation and more as an invitation to problem-solve.
Obviously, this is easier in some situations than others. When planning for a conversation, start by considering what the problem is and defining it in terms that are specific, factual and not critical of the other person’s character.
For example, when addressing the problem of someone repeatedly showing up late, you might state the problem as, “You showed up 15 minutes late on four occasions in the past three weeks.” Being specific and factual helps you avoid using terms that could lead to misunderstanding as people can interpret terms such as several, a lot and often in different ways and might also see it as an attack on their character.
After defining the problem, list some effects of the problem. Continuing with the example of someone showing up late, the effects might be wasted time and resources, frustration, resentment, missed reservations or appointments. Even if the effect is missing the previews before a movie and that is something you enjoy, list it. People often are unaware of all the consequences of their behaviors.
Now, looking at this list of effects, notice any emotions you listed such as anger, frustration, worry or resentment that personally impacted you. Give yourself some compassion around those emotions and consider what thoughts might have prompted them. Did the other person’s actions communicate disregard, disrespect or hostility toward you? Note that as the message you take from the situation.
After taking some time to define the problem and effects, give some thought to what you want the outcome of the conversation to be. What do you see as the solution to the problem? What would be different if this problem were solved? With this step, you basically are naming what you want out of the conversation and why.
Planning and thinking about this can help you stay on track when you are in the conversation. In the example of someone who recently has been late, what you might want is for the person to show up on time or not to be left waiting for the person. You may not get exactly what you want with the conversation but, when your thoughts are going toward a solution, you are less likely to get sidetracked by negative impulses, such as accusation or criticism.
Now that you have defined the problem and identified what you want, consider what might be going on for the other person. Is this a new behavior or something they have done for a long time? Is the other person going through a hard time or major life changes that might contribute to the problem? Are there circumstances going on for that person that might make it hard for them to recognize how their behavior impacts others around them?
You don’t have to know the answers to all these questions, but being open to the possibility there might be something with which the other person is dealing that could explain their behavior can help you feel less like the behavior is personally motivated and leaves more room for compassion for the other person. This, in turn, can help you set a tone of collaboration and problem-solving rather than confrontation.
Next, plan for practical aspects of how you want to approach the conversation. Timing, place and privacy all are considerations. With timing, consider when your own energy is the best and also, if you know, for the other person. If neither of you are morning people, first thing in the morning is probably not the best time. Some people don’t like to have serious discussions while eating a meal and, for others, that might be the only time they have to take a break.
Don’t let finding the perfect time get in the way of having the discussion, but do put some thought into when would be a good time. You want to pick a time and place when you can reasonably expect to have some privacy and freedom from distractions. Ideally, you will be having this type of conversation in person, but a telephone conversation may be your only option. If this is the case, you will want to make sure both parties can be clearly heard and understood.
Now you have thought through practical aspects, such as when and where, and thought about how to define the problem and what you really want to accomplish with the conversation. But what exactly do you say to get the conversation started? What exactly you say depends a great deal on what the situation is. The initiation or invitation to the conversation can set the tone and tip the other person off to what is coming.
If you are going to be breaking really bad news to someone, you may want to give them a sense of that so they have an opportunity to prepare themselves. In this situation, you might want to say something along the lines of, “I have something difficult to talk to you about. Would you please sit down with me?”
On the other hand, you may be addressing a small issue before it gets bigger. In this situation, you can set the other person at ease by saying, “Hey, I’ve got something that’s been upsetting me and I was hoping you could help me out with it.”
As you proceed with the discussion, be sure to take ownership of your part in any problem. Using “I” statements can be a good way to structure your messages to communicate how you experience the problem and what you would like to be different going forward. You also want to give the other person time to respond. Remember: You have had the chance to think and plan for this conversation; the other person likely did not.
The other person may offer reasons that explain the behavior you have found problematic. This is where compassion and being flexible about solutions can be really helpful in strengthening trust and solving the problem. Offer ideas you have for solving the problem and be open to suggestions from the other person. Planning for a follow-up conversation to see how both people are feeling about the solution and making any necessary adjustments can help both with maintaining any changes in behavior and trust.
All of this planning is meant to help you feel calmer and more confident about engaging in difficult conversations. Despite how carefully you plan, the other person may not react in a positive or calm way. Do your best to stay calm and, if possible, offer the other person a break or opportunity to revisit the issue at another time. Given a little time to process what was said, the other person may be able to come back to the conversation in a better state of mind for problem-solving.
If you want more information or to be able to discuss your thoughts and ideas about difficult conversations, EAP coaching or consultation may be just what you are looking for. Give us a call at 1-800-327-4968 (TTY: 877-492-7341).
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Alexandria, VA 22314-2753