How To Have A Difficult Conversation In Five Steps

I used to sit next to this lady (I’ll call her Janice) at work.  Janice had a subordinate (I’ll call him Rob).  I used to cringe every time Rob would come to her desk.  For some reason, Janice was just flat-out mean to this guy.  You could hear it in her voice and see it in her body language.  It got to a point where Rob would look like an abused dog when he came around; head hung low, shoulders drooping, posture hunched forward.  I think this clear sign of domination only made matters worse.  When I would see Rob in the hall, I wanted to stop him and say, “Dude, why don’t you say something?”

Having difficult conversations is something very few of us look forward to.  I know I don’t.  In fact, I’m pretty much downright non-confrontational.  I have a long fuse and am pretty patient.  This can be a blessing and a curse.  Where people might explode with impatient rage, I’m usually pretty calm.  The problem is, if we don’t have that conversation to tell someone STOP!, will we end up like Rob?  For example, despite your sweaty palms, pounding heart, and shortness of breath, could you:

Tell one of your friends that his jokes are inappropriate and unacceptable?

Confront your manager and tell him (or her) that their management decisions are killing your department’s morale?

Sit down with one of your in-laws and tell them that their frequent visits are a little too frequent?

Wild Goats Fighting

Not as easy as it sounds.  In fact, I’d venture to say that, like Rob, we are more likely to brush it off and saying something like, “I’m used to it” or “That’s just the way it is.”  But does it have to be?

Not to sound like Dr. Phil (the real Dr. Phil), but people treat us in accordance with the way we allow ourselves to be treated.  It’s why bullies continue to walk over their victims, why people take advantage of you, and why Rob always looks like an animal in one of those sad ASPCA commercials.  So how do we put a stop to this behavior?  By having a difficult conversation.

Identify the why: What’s the purpose of this conversation?  Get to the point and don’t beat around the bush.  This can be done professionally and tactfully.  Just don’t string it out and lose your target’s attention by starting off with, “Uhh, uh, umm.”  Maybe something more like, “Janice, I’d like to talk to you about our working relationship and how you’ve been treating me lately.”

Illustrate your feelings: I don’t mean break down and cry or scream at the top of your lungs.  Letting the other person know about how you feel places context around the situation: “When you joke around like that, it makes me feel uncomfortable.  I think the things you’re saying are disrespectful and hurtful.  I know I wouldn’t want someone talking about me in that way.”

Remain open-minded: Remember, conversation is a two-way street.  Open-mindedness actually means understanding what’s driving the other person’s behavior.  Could it be problems at home, pressure from the corporate higher-ups, or simply being oblivious?  The answer might surprise you.  I always keep this in mind by remembering Wayne Dyer’s story about a father and his kids on the subway.  The kids were running around, being unruly.  The passengers were growing irritated and angry with the father, thinking he was being extremely inconsiderate for not checking his kids.  When confronted, the out-of-it father apologized by saying that they were coming from the hospital…where his wife just passed away.  OK, so maybe your conversation may not be that extreme.  But always keep in mind, there’s another side of the story.

Listen: This goes without saying.  Whatever emotions you may have (anger, sadness, disappointment, etc.) they may cloud your ability to focus and listen to what the other person is saying.  Without listening, you’re already losing half the battle.  In order for this conversation to work, you’re going to have to temporarily suppress your emotions and just listen.

Resolve, Agree, and Move Forward: Finally, find the resolution and move forward.  In Rob’s case, he gets to the root cause of the problem (maybe Janice doesn’t like the way he just pops in unannounced at her desk).  He agrees to schedule meetings or IM her to see if she’s free and she agrees to watch her tone of voice, attitude, and body language.  With a common understanding and working agreement, they can both move forward and course-correct when needed.

Where in your life do you need to have a difficult conversation?