Why Not . . . Have That Difficult Conversation?
Wednesday October 17, 2012

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Over the past year, one of the common requests I have received is to share strategies on how to effectively and compassionately have a difficult conversation with a friend, partner, colleague, boss or family member.

Such conversations are not easy and understandably something that inspires dread and often avoidance all together. But when we avoid speaking up for ourselves, we rob ourselves of the potential to build strong, quality relationships either with the people we are currently involved with or the chance to break free and move on to find people who we can build strong, healthy relationships with.

So whether you have a friend who you care about but is incessantly draining your time by complaining about her life without choosing to do something to change it for the better, are involved with someone in a romantic relationship who continues to make you feel unimportant, are desiring to set firmer boundaries with your family so they will respect your space and time, or work with a colleague who doesn’t allow you to contribute to group work or respect your ideas, I’ve created a seven step checklist that will help you clarify exactly what it is you want to change, how to have a conversation that has the highest potential for positive results and how to move forward successfully. Have a look.

1. Beforehand, determine why you want to have the conversation. What do you hope to gain or accomplish? Before the conversation begins, take some time to determine if indeed a conversation is necessary. Often we enter into arguments with people or about topics that don’t play a significant role in our lives and proceed to waste energy that wasn’t necessary to expend. However, if the issue at hand involves someone who you will in the future have to continue to work with, someone who you are building a life with, or someone who is a dear friend that you don’t want to lose, then it is imperative that you are clear about what you wish to gain by having a conversation with them. In other words, don’t enter into a conversation simply to prove that you were right and they were wrong. Instead, enter into a conversation to stand up for yourself, so that you can continue to remain involved with the person at a level that is respectful and allows both parties to maintain their dignity and sense of self.

2. Step away from your emotions and observe them objectively. Be clear about how you feel, be honest and respect your feelings. Then determine why you are feeling the way you are feeling. What are you fearful of? What needs aren’t being met? What event provoked you to feel the way you do? Why did it bother you the way it did? And please always keep in mind that even if someone else would have responded differently, you still have a right to your feelings. When you get an opportunity to explain to your friend/partner/boss/etc why you felt that way, hopefully they will have a better opportunity to understand you and reassure you that their intent was not to make you feel that way. However, if they know the information you’ve shared and then continue to behave in a similar manner, be mindful and seriously consider moving on.

3. Enter the conversation with a positive attitude – knowing it may be difficult, but desiring for it to work out. Don’t begin the conversation on the defensive. Approach any difficult conversation with the desire to hear their side (and truly listen), as well as have the opportunity to calmly share your side as well. If both parties are willing to listen (they may not agree, but simply listen), there is a chance for a positive outcome.

4. Once the conversation begins, gather as much information as possible from what the other person is saying as well as how they behave – their mannerisms. Let’s just be honest, actions matter just as much as words, so while the person you’re having the conversation with may say exactly what you want to hear, observe their actions during and after the conversation as well. Such observations will help you understand if they were sincere is trying to improve your relationship. However, while they are sharing their side of the situation, let them speak. Listen and don’t be preparing in your mind what you are going to say. Treat them the way you wish they will treat you when you are able to share your side.

5. Listen fully (you will get your turn to speak) and then repeat back to them what you’ve heard them say, to be sure you’ve heard it correctly. By doing this, you are demonstrating to them that they have been heard which, if both parties’ goal is to grow, improve and strengthen the relationship, will build trust and reduce defensiveness (however, it may not eliminate it entirely, and that is to be expected). By paraphrasing back to them what you heard them say, you are also helping yourself to understand more clearly the reasons behind their behavior. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what they did was okay but helps provide understanding and offer an opportunity to potentially move forward.

6. State your side and advocate for how you feel and your position. Remember to respect how you felt prior to the conversation and do not be charmed into letting those feelings become irrelevant. They are real, you felt them. By sharing the reasons that prompted you to feel the way you did, you are standing up for yourself and allowing the other person to understand your side. Be honest, but not vengeful. “I felt disrespected when you made a decision to  ______________ without checking to see if I was available,” for example. Click here to learn three specific ways to have an effective and respectful conversation.

7. Begin to problem solve and move forward. Once both parties have shared their side, and as long as both parties have the goal of improving the relationship and are committed to making it work, when you put your two heads and ideas together, you will now be able to address how to improve your relationship. Knowing why someone behaved the way they did or felt the way they did can be very vulnerable and exposing for the person sharing, but if you are both invested in the relationship, the risk will be worth it as it will allow the bond between the two of you to strengthen.

The most important component in reaching a positive outcome while having a difficult conversation is having two parties (persons) who both want to improve the relationship. As long as both parties feel that the relationship is valuable and are willing to listen, adjust and still feel they are able to be respected and valued, then there is hope. Even if the goal is to bring the relationship to an end in a respectful manner, if both parties have this goal in mind, the outcome will bring healthy closure so that both parties can move on.

~A book to check out How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

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2 thoughts on “Why Not . . . Have That Difficult Conversation?

  1. Um Shannon, you are the goddess of wisdom on fashion, style, sane, luxurious living and now relationships. Have you talked to Oprah yet? She could use someone of your caliber…. seriously. This is great, wish I had read it a few decades ago.

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