Difficult Conversations and Why It’s Important Not to Avoid Them

READING TIME: 8 MINUTES

Difficult Conversations

Whether we’re ending a relationship, asking for a raise, or even apologizing to someone we love, we’re faced with a difficult conversation.

When it comes to topics like politics, religion, sexuality, or race, we feel awkward and uncomfortable talking about them. There are even day-to-day conversations that cause us great anxiety, like telling the neighbor that his barking dog is keeping us up at night, or something as trivial as asking someone to take off their shoes in our home.

More often than not, we try to avoid these interactions at any cost because we are nervous about the outcome. While sometimes, we face them ‘armed and ready.’ Other times, we beat around the bush during a conversation so nobody gets hurt. 

These approaches will only make the problem worse, and nothing will get resolved. We need to learn how to turn a battle into a constructive conversation and confront problems while keeping a peace of mind.

Why Are Some Conversations Hard?

Any conversation in which the two people's opinions clash is considered a difficult conversation. People enter these conversations with certain expectations, feelings, and positions. When we feel that our opinions or position are challenged, it is in our nature to react with emotion.

The authors of the book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” identified four factors that occur in every difficult conversation that makes them difficult in the first place: differing perceptions, assumptions about intent, feelings, and blame.

Differing Perceptions: The problem is that you have two different perceptions of reality. We think I'm right and I know I make sense, while the person we're disagreeing with also thinks he or she is right.

We have different sets of information and interpretations of the same events, and we are not able to see that what the other person is saying might also make sense and be true.

Our differing perceptions come from different life experiences that shape the way we see our surroundings and circumstances.

Assumptions about intent: In difficult conversations, we often assume we know the intentions of the other person. And we make those assumptions based on the impact of their actions on us. Therefore, if we feel hurt, we assume they wanted to hurt us. If we feel insulted, we assume it was their intention. 

We cannot know what’s in other people’s hearts and on their minds, unless they explicitly express it. But, in a heated conversation, our thinking becomes automatic, and we’re not aware that our conclusions are only assumptions.

Feelings: In most conflicts, our feelings are the primary issue. We get emotionally involved and that impairs our ability to think straight and appropriately communicate. 

If we fail to successfully communicate our feelings and thoughts, we won’t be able to resolve the problem. At the very least, we get angry or upset. But, sometimes those feelings will take a form of sarcasm and passive aggression to mask a tough situation.

Blame: Our typical response to a conflict is to focus on who is to blame. We wonder - “Who made a mistake?” and “Who should apologize?”

Blaming is about making judgments which is completely counterproductive. It inhibits our ability to find a true cause of the problem. 

These four factors are the underlying reasons that prevent us from managing conflicts effectively. They make it impossible for us to understand different perceptions, do anything of significance to correct the situation, and adjust our behaviors for better outcomes in the future.

How to Effectively Engage in Difficult Conversations?

Difficult conversations have become an integral part of both our professional and personal life. Therefore, there is a dire need to learn how to manage them properly. 

Once we recognize and understand the factors that are the root of the problem, it’s important to learn about the strategies we can use to deal with difficult conversations in less stressful and more productive ways. 

Strategy #1 - Make it safe to talk: Both parties need to feel comfortable expressing their feelings and thoughts. To make a conversation safe, we need to respect and care for other people's interests and identity as much as we do our own.

Strategy #2 - Listen: We need to be open and genuinely curious about the other person; acknowledge their feelings and listen to what they have to say because we care and not because we’re supposed to. Then, we need to clearly paraphrase what they are saying to make sure we understand them properly.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” - Dr. Stephen R. Covey

Strategy #3 - Adopt a “Yes, and….” approach: The essence of this approach is the validation of both viewpoints and realization that the way each of us see things matters. We can listen to the other person’s story without giving up on our own. 

Once we really understand each other, and where we come from, we can work our way toward resolving the problem.

Strategy #4 - Don’t leap into assumptions: We need to ask ourselves, “What did the person actually say or do?”, “What is the impact of this on me?” and “What assumptions am I making based on that impact?”

The goal of answering these questions is for us to realize that our assumptions about their intent is just a guess. It’s important to share these observations with the other person. Make sure to label them as our assumptions, a guess that is open to re-evaluation.

Strategy #5 - Don’t start statements with “you.”: They may sound accusatory and blaming. Instead, we should start with “I” statements. That way we keep the responsibility for what we’re saying. 

Strategy #6 - Don’t focus on the blame, but rather the contribution: Ask this question - “How did we each contribute to the problem?”

This allows us to shift the focus from blaming to agreeing that both parties contributed to the problem. The goal is to act differently in the future, and avoid repeating whatever caused the issue.

Handling difficult conversations properly is a skill that needs to be worked on over time. When dealing with a tough situation, the most important ingredient is to show your interest in understanding others and willingness to move to a positive outcome.

Avoiding Conflicts Leads To Bigger Issues

Avoiding difficult conversation can be detrimental. It may bring short-term comfort because we pushed off something that causes us anxiety. However, in the long run, these unresolved problems can cause a lasting damage.

Avoiding problems doesn’t make them go away. Instead, it often results in increased stress and unhappiness. While having those conversations may not be pleasant, the anxiety of uncertainty leading up to them is much worse. 

Harboring resentment, anger, and other negative feelings, cannot last forever. Sooner or later they will have to come to the surface, in a form of emotional outburst, leaving our partner, co-workers or friends hurt, bitter, or confused. We need to start acting toward resolving these problems as soon as they emerge. It will mean having a couple uncomfortable conversations, but it’s far better than letting the issues fester and spiral out of control.

Besides, if we procrastinate addressing the problems, they tend to compound and get worse. It could lead to a major backlash hurting our relationships and the people around us.

The Benefits Outweigh Possible Negative Outcomes

The benefits of NOT delaying or avoiding difficult conversations outweigh to a large extent all the potential negative outcomes. With persistence and practice, we will learn to dive into these tough conversations with confidence, knowing we can only learn from them and grow better.

In other words, managing difficult conversations in a successful way helps us build and maintain personal as well as work relationships. 

Through tough conversations, we get feedback we wouldn’t get otherwise. In a workplace, these feedbacks are important because they give insight into our blind spots allowing us to learn about our weaknesses and improve them. Besides, productivity is enhanced, stress is reduced, and as a result, better decisions are made.

Feedback is essential for personal relationships as well. Without it, we won’t recognize what we’re doing wrong and we won’t be able to improve. If we don’t learn, we’ll repeat the same mistake throughout the relationship. If we want to keep our partner happy and our relationships healthy, we can’t avoid having those uncomfortable conversations from time to time and listen to hard-to-hear feedback.

It’s natural to fear difficult conversations, but they are our opportunity to build trust and respect. Once we learn how to treat each other with respect, and challenge each other without fear and with compassion, those conversations will rarely be difficult anymore. Thus, our relationships with our partner, co-workers, friends, and family will improve greatly.

Difficult conversations matter. So, we need to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It will help us navigate both personal and professional relationships, and grow stronger as individuals.

“Because no matter how hard a conversation is, I know that on the other side of that difficult conversation lies peace. Knowledge. An answer delivered. Character is revealed. Truces are formed. Misunderstandings are resolved…The more difficult the conversation, the greater the freedom.” - Shonda Rhimes

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