The Initial Fear
If you’ve ever avoided having a conversation about a difficult subject, whether that’s in your personal life or at work, then you already know how hurtful it can be. Not just for your personal and professional relationships, but also your character.
It’s natural to want to avoid conflict or discord, but they’re an essential part of life, and it’s something we need to become more comfortable with. Learning to reframe your thinking about difficult conversations is key if you want to learn how to talk about difficult things, but that matters.
Being able to talk about drugs, immigration, the LGBTQ+ community, feminism, abortion, etc., is necessary. Not only because it is important to speak your mind and adhere to causes you truly care about, but also because it truly makes a difference. Having a ten-minute difficult conversation and not avoiding a scary subject ensures you stop being a victim of the situation and people in your life. Avoiding hard conversations leads us to swallow our feelings, which is unhealthy. Resentments we fail to address turn into blame or anger, or they manifest in different ways, like a stress-related illness.
Steps to a Successful Outcome
When it comes to having difficult conversations about controversial topics, it’s important to come from a place of respect and genuine curiosity. Many people focus on whether or not they will be liked after they speak their mind, but that’s not where your focus should be. I usually go into a conversation with a curious mind and looking forward to learning something new. I have done this for so many years now that I am not afraid of being wrong. I actually look forward to someone showing me a new perspective. It can be fun if you change the way you approach it.
Questions I ask myself before a challenging conversation:
- What is my purpose?
- What do I hope to accomplish?
- What would be an ideal outcome?
- What assumptions am I making?
- Are there any common concerns?
- How have I contributed to the problem?
We live in a culture based on avoidance and blame, which makes it easier to blame others or avoid conflict. The top reasons we tend to avoid conflict is because we want to feel “safe” and make sure we are liked and supported by others, or we care about others and the way they feel, or we are tired of explaining ourselves. Being vulnerable is scary, and we don’t have enough role models (except for the amazing Dr. Brene Brown) to show us how it is done and the amazing benefits that come from being authentic.
Lean into difficult conversations with a positive attitude and a genuine desire to either help someone consider a perspective or to learn something new yourself. Difficult conversations don’t have to become an argument or end in discord. If you learn to go into them with the right attitude and create psychological safety, ensuring that everyone in the conversation feels safe and sticks to the facts, there won’t be room for misunderstanding. Even if you do not agree in the end, you can agree to disagree and leave it at that. The longer you wait to address a difficult situation, the more emotionally charged it will become.
It’s also important that you remain curious and learn how to listen to others instead of just focusing on what you want to say. For example, if a colleague at work is missing their deadline, instead of going into the conversation from anger or frustration, be supportive and listen. You may say, for example, “I’ve noticed you’re having trouble meeting recently set deadlines. Would you like to talk about the challenges you’re facing?” and go from there. Listen to their response and react proactively. What matters in any scenario is identifying the issue and working together to either solve it or at least find common ground.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
– Audre Lorde
The Bottom Line
Conflicts are handled successfully when they are dealt with promptly. In my career, these are the things I keep in mind right before any difficult conversation: I take responsibility for my part from the start, I use “I” statements to own my feedback, I seek to understand first and use active listening skills, I acknowledge others, and I always show compassion.
A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. I am not going to lie; it is risky to talk about certain topics. But more often than not, that’s exactly what you need to do: take a risk and speak your mind. Don’t put off conversations just because they’re difficult. They will eat away at you and cause a lot more problems than actually having the conversation and speaking your mind.