Why do we avoid difficult conversations? At some point, many of us have had to deliver the dreaded line, “We need to talk.” And this often precedes an argument rather than any conversation.
Why are some conversations so difficult that we’ll do anything to avoid them? Possibly because:
- We are stuck between what we feel and knowing what we really shouldn’t say.
- We are distracted by our internal thoughts and uncertain about what to share.
- There’s so much going on in the relationship with the other person, it’s confusing.
If you didn’t care on some level about your relationship with the other person, you wouldn’t struggle with this in the first place. But avoiding the conversation allows things to build up to the boiling point. When we finally have no choice but to confront the issue, we end up damaging the relationship with the other person.
Holly Weeks, author of an article in Harvard Business Review, "Failure to Communicate," describes a familiar “difficult conversation” scenario:
“Your stomach’s churning; you’re hyperventilating – you’re in a badly deteriorating conversation at work. Such exchanges, which run the gamut from firing subordinates to parrying verbal attacks from colleagues, are so loaded with anger, confusion, and fear that most people handle them poorly: they avoid them, clamp down, or give in. But dodging issues, appeasing difficult people, and mishandling tough encounters all carry a high price for managers and companies – in the form of damaged relationships, ruined careers, and intensified problems.”
Whenever emotions are involved, conversations get tricky. Emotions are generated in the part of the brain called the amygdala – a more primitive part of the brain. When stimulated, it calls the body into fight or flight mode. Humans are genetically hard-wired to react to emotional triggers by either fighting, freezing, or fleeing – actions which, during cavemen times, had huge survival benefits.
Are we much different now than our ancestors? Genetically, no. We still have impulses to blast someone or clam up and avoid them altogether. We are not actually hard-wired to sit down and talk it over with someone when there’s a problem.
Rebecca Knight, in an article in Harvard Business Review, gives us pointers on getting what you need from these challenging conversations while keeping relationships intact.
- Change your mindset: If you’re gearing up for a conversation you’ve labeled “difficult,” you’re more likely to feel nervous and upset about it beforehand. Instead, try “framing it in a positive” way. For example, you’re not giving negative performance feedback; you’re having a constructive conversation about development. You’re not telling your boss "no," you’re offering up an alternate solution. A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as a normal conversation.
- Breathe: The calmer one is, the better one can handle difficult conversations. Take regular breaks and breathe mindfully to refocus. This technique works well in the heat of the moment. If, for example, a colleague comes to you with an issue that might lead to a hard conversation, excuse yourself — get a cup of coffee or take a brief stroll — and collect your thoughts.
- Plan, but don’t script: To plan what you want to say, jot down notes and key points before the conversation. Drafting a script, however, is a waste of time. Your strategy for the conversation should be flexible and contain a repertoire of possible responses. Aim for language that is simple, clear, direct, and neutral.
Three Kinds of Conversations
Fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project has produced some interesting information about what goes on during conflict. The book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, is written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher (Penguin Books, 2000).
There are basically three kinds of conversations, no matter what the subject. In each of these kinds of conversations, we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings.
- The “What Happened?” conversation. There is usually disagreement about what happened or what should happen. Stop arguing about who’s right: explore each other’s stories and try to learn something new. Don’t assume meanings. Disentangle intent from impact. Abandon blaming anyone and think in terms of contributions to the solution.
- The “Feelings” conversation. Every difficult conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings, which are formed in response to our thoughts based on negotiable perceptions. Are they valid? Appropriate? Often feelings are not addressed directly and thus they interfere with the conversation even more.
- The “Identity” conversation. This is where we examine what’s at stake: what do I stand to lose or gain? What impact might this have on my career, marriage, self-esteem, our relationship? These issues determine the degree to which we feel off-centered and anxious.
Sometimes a third party can help facilitate difficult conversations. Talking it through with your coach can help decipher the underlying components of a difficult conversation. With a coach, you can examine your assumptions, your emotions and your personal identity. You can learn to structure difficult conversations in a way that improves relationships instead of risking them.
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