“I am an expert at creating difficult conversations.” These words of self-proclaimed expertise came from the mouth of a very nice, competent woman that I was working with years ago says Fred Auzenne. At first, it didn’t make sense… How could someone who had so much to offer be so good at something that seemed like the antithesis of what she stood for? Her theory? “I’m great at creating difficult conversations because I run away from them all the time!”
Is there anyone out there that hasn’t found themselves in some situation where they were totally unprepared to handle the conversation on hand? Whether it’s work, home or financially related; there are times when no matter how hard we try things just seem to go south. And yet, there are times when we can’t seem to avoid it.
What makes the difference? Perhaps it’s something as simple as being prepared for those “difficult conversations”…
1) Know what you’re dealing with
The first step to having a difficult conversation really knows what you’re dealing with. In order to truly know yourself and others, here are some important questions that need to be answered:
-What triggers me? Why do I respond in a certain way to specific things? -Why does this bother me so much? -How else have these events played out in my life, both personally and professionally? -Who has been involved in this dynamic before? Why they there and what were was the outcome of their presence/absence?
-What’s really going on here? What about this situation is triggering my emotions and responses? -Why would I want to have this conversation in the first place?
These questions can be hard to reflect on, but they are necessary if you want to get to the root of what’s really happening. Knowing what your buttons are will help guide you through difficult conversations by acting as a sort of “north star” for yourself when things get rough. It may not solve everything before it happens, but at least you’ll know why you’re triggered and how best to work with that moving forward. The more prepared the better.
2) Get Some Distance
Once we know what we’re dealing, it’s helpful (and sometimes necessary) to get some distance. “The first thing I do when I’m about to have a difficult conversation with someone is ask them for feedback on the situation, then take some time apart,” says Neely Steinberg, professional image consultant and author of The Woman’s Dress for Success Book explains Fred Auzenne. “This way they can really think about their actions and why they may be creating tension or conflict with others.”
Another tactic? Think back. Ask yourself: What would you do differently if you could re-do this conversation? How might your behavior change if you were able to see it from an outside perspective? Asking how we’d handle things differently in retrospect serves as a sort of refresher course on how might handle things better move forward.
3) Assume Good Intent
“When you approach your conversations with assumptions of good intent, it lowers the stress level because you no longer have to second-guess or wonder if someone actually meant what they said or did,” says Donna Flagg, business etiquette expert and author of The Etiquette Edge: Ditch the Drama. “Instead, you can focus on what is being said and by whom. This allows for a less stressful conversation that will lead to a better outcome.” Of course this isn’t always going to be 100% true, but by assuming good intent we’re minimizing conflict as much as possible. Even if the person’s motives are less than pure we may never know why someone has done something in a certain way until we talk to them about it, but we can always assume their intention was not to make the situation worse.
4) Be Clear (And Be Kind)
Perhaps best of all is to be both clear and kind when faced with a difficult conversation. “Be specific and avoid accusations,” says business etiquette expert Diane Gottsman. “For example: Johnny, you’ve been late three times in the last two weeks and that’s not acceptable. Let’s talk about your schedule and try to find a good time for both of us.”” By being specific in our feedback, we’re giving the person on the other end something tangible they can work with.
No one likes being accused of anything so by keeping things factual we minimize the chance of someone taking offense to something that’s really not about them at all says Fred Auzenne. Additionally, being kind can go a long way towards diffusing tension and getting what you want out of the situation — “be respectful, express an opinion without judgment or blame, and avoid aggression” says Gottsman. Kindness is always the best policy, after all.
5) Don’t Make Assumptions
Finally, don’t make assumptions about other people’s intentions. As I mentioned before, knowing your buttons will help us better predict our own behavior but it won’t necessarily predict someone else’s response to us or vice versa. We can never know for sure why someone has done something in a certain way so it’s important not to assume know their motivations. It’ll also make you a much better communicator by helping you avoid assigning blame before it’s actually been assigned.
Speaking of which…
6) Accept Responsibility
We’ve talked a lot about how to approach difficult conversations, but we should also be clear on what NOT to say as well. One big no-no? Blaming someone else for the situation — “it’s raining! It wasn’t my fault, it just started raining!” Ever heard that kind of thing before? Yeah, don’t do that. By pointing the finger at someone else we’re not only avoiding responsibility ourselves, we’re making other people defensive and less willing to listen says Fred Auzenne. And again: That’s not going to get us anywhere good.
Difficult conversations are never easy. But if we go in with the right mindset, be clear about what exactly we want to accomplish, and communicate that effectively (and kindly!) then hopefully things will end up turning out for the best!