5 Tips for Handling Hard Conversations
I’ve hated confrontation for as long as I can remember. If I know a hard conversation is coming, I want to run home, jump into my bed, grab my teddy bear and pull the covers over my head.
Having a hard conversation has repeatedly made me lapse back years in time, turning me from a 20-something into the shy little girl I was at age four.
I don’t know why I have such a confrontation complex. It could be a few things. For starters, my hometown has a culture of appeasement.
I had a professor in college who lived in San Francisco for years. When he moved to California’s more rural Central Valley where I grew up, he was always surprised by what pushovers people are. They would rather let situations fester and make passive aggressive remarks than handle something directly and honestly.
Add on to that my lifelong shyness. Then add onto that my femaleness. I can’t begin to tell you how many times in big and little ways society has conditioned me as a female to be agreeable, that going with the flow and not having strong opinions nor a backbone somehow increase my worth as a woman and “good girl.” But I know it has. I still see it happening today.
One example: I have a niece and years ago an authortative male figure in my family said this to her when she was being too loud one day: “Shh! You need to behave like a girl.”
Standing there and old enough, maybe 20 at the time, to recognize the misogyny, I was irate. I immediately stepped in, in front of my niece, and called that a sexist remark.
Maybe that reactionary approach isn’t the best way to handle a tough conversation, but over the years I’ve began to think more about what the best way is, and here’s just a few things that’ve helped me.
Think about the worst that could happen and have a plan
When preparing to have a hard conversation, fear used to take over my body and brain. I’d spiral into a negative vortex and come out the other end too paralyzed to stand up for myself or someone I cared for.
Now that doesn’t happen so much because whenever I feel I’m approaching a spiral, I ask myself, “What is the absolute worst outcome possible?” And then I deal with it. This helps be confidently vulnerable.
If it’s getting fired from a job, I think about how I could handle that. If it’s a yelling match between my stepdad and I, I make a plan for that.
(Disclaimer: I fully admit that I have some privilege here because (1) I’m only responsible for myself — no kids! And (2) I have an awesome mom who is always willing to do what she can for me if I need her.)
It’s not always easy or possible to make a plan for the worst, but thinking about outcomes in a rational manner allows me to be take calculated risks and be confident when expressing my concerns instead of letting fear fog up my brain. It dissolves the totally ludicrous feeling that I’d rather die than confront someone about a problem.
Memorize your most important talking points
Sometimes when you dive into a hard conversation, you will forget all of your grievances. So many things take over. The nerves, the fear, the anger. To avoid having a productive discussion supplanted by an aimless argument or blaming match, I meditate on what I want to say before ever starting and think about some things that I will not allow myself to say, and least in certain ways.
Try to keep it short and sweet… as sweet as possible. You should still be honest and make sure you explain how you feel.
Identifying the three most important points that I must say is what has worked for me.
Use a talking stick to make sure everyone’s heard
It’s all happened to us. I happened to me as recently as Christmas morning: the yelling match.
Let’s be clear, a hard conversation is not the same thing as an argument. There is a crucial difference. For a hard conversation to succeed, everyone involved must fully listen to the other person when she or he is speaking.
It’s so easy to fall off track with this. How many times have you been in an argument, making your main point, and the other person cuts you off? Yeah, it’s happened a lot to me too. And I’ve done it a lot to other people. Not one of us is perfect.
If you need to have a hard conversation, have a tool in case interruptions occur. You can use anything — a talking stick is just the key word everyone recognizes. Try a smart phone timer or (my favorite) an hourglass. Just take turns talking.
Make it clear you care about how the other person feels
So many of our arguments with other people are rooted in very primal human emotions. One of those emotions is the fear of rejection. When someone feels rejection approaching, in any type of relationship, secondary emotions can manifest in a subconscious attempt to blunt the pain. This happens a lot with children who can’t understand what they’re feeling. If sad, they can lash out with anger instead. It follows so many of us into adulthood.
When telling a person something you know they don’t want to hear, make sure you also explain why you’re saying it.
Maybe it’s something they said that hurt you, and you want to discuss it so you don’t resent them. Maybe it’s how they’re doing something that’s making life harder for everyone and you want to change it to help things go smoother.
In my own recent experience, if it’s the latter, make the suggestion as soon as possible. Don’t try to change the way a shared task (like disciplining kids) is carried out without talking about it first. An apology after the fact is harder than a suggestion beforehand.
Discuss next steps together and be realistic
Tying up the loose ends of a hard conversation can be awkward. But if you’re being confident, kind, and completely honest, the next step can be obvious.
If reasonable, ask the person you’re talking with for their thoughts and plan for the next steps together.
Also, don’t be afraid to shed some tears along the way. The best hard conversations require some soul searching. And as Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations, we’re all a more reflective after a good cry.
Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before — more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.
Best of luck in the path ahead.