Many people dread discussing things that have gone wrong or need to change. But avoiding these conversations leads to problems growing, not disappearing.
Think of hard conversations as weeds. Pulling weeds when they are small is annoying but doable. If weeds are ignored, their root structures become deeper and more complex. Quick fixes on fully grown weeds are futile – the problem continues growing beneath the surface.
Pulling weeds early (or having a hard conversation when problems are identified) prevents you from dealing with an unmanageable situation. It is a gift to your future self.
Rather than avoid challenging topics, try this reframe: “My intense feelings are the reason I need to have the uncomfortable conversation, not the excuse to avoid it.”
Here are tips to get through having difficult conversations:
Have a pre-conversation.
Tell the other person you’d like to talk and specify the topic.
Work with them on creating a mutually agreeable time and place so that you enter the conversation with equal opportunity to mentally prepare.
During the Conversation
Avoid blame, shame, attacks, overgeneralizing, interrupting, and insults.
Clearly describe your concerns, using examples whenever possible.
If you know what you want, state it in specific, behavioral, and objective terms.
If you don’t know what you want, be open to brainstorming and trying various options.
Take time-outs if needed, but only when they are mutually agreed upon.
Be open-minded to the other person’s thoughts, feelings, concerns, perspectives, and ideas.
Remember that the goal (almost always) is winning together, not one person being right and the other wrong.
Follow Up and Follow Through
After the conversation, circle back and see how things are progressing and how the other person feels.
Ensure you follow through on any promises, decisions, or goals outlined in the conversation.
Use positive reinforcement! When the other person makes a positive change, thank them.
Teaching Example: Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood
Grace’s 16-year-old daughter, Lotte, is in trouble. Lotte has been skipping school, experiencing bullying online, and received a particularly lewd note at school. Grace knows she needs to talk to Lotte about everything. But they’ve never really had difficult conversations. In the silence, half-talks, and cutting comments, Lotte’s problems fester, and the relationship between Grace and Lotte disintegrates.
Apply The Skills
Grace could remind herself that, as a mom whose spidey sense is up, she needs to lean into uncomfortable conversations to keep her daughter safe. She could tell Lotte that she’s noticing that Lotte is unhappy and missing school and suggest they talk about it together at a specific place and time – maybe with Lotte’s dad present, too.
During the talk, Grace can non-judgmentally outline the troubling things she’s noticed (skipping school, bullying, the note). The goal of the conversation could be working together to help Lotte find solutions – not Lotte apologizing or being punished for her mistakes. Grace could collaborate with Lotte on ways to support her and hold her accountable.
After the conversation, Grace could follow up with Lotte about what’s working and not working, about the changes and ways that Grace can further help. She could follow through with any promised support.
This would put Grace and Lotte back on the same team and help them feel more connected. And, when the next problem arises, they would be more resilient.