The Difficult Conversations

“We need to talk…”

…are the four least-favorite words you want to hear from someone you care about. Every relationship has them; subjects where you know you disagree, or where the topics touch on painful memories, or trigger deeply-held fears. They may be unresolved decisions; opinions about people or issues; They are the things that we would just about do anything to not have to deal with.

At first a difficult conversation may be “the elephant in the room” but if you can ignore it long enough it becomes “the elephant-shaped hat rack/tapestry holder in the room” and it’s much easier to ignore. Especially when it’s next to the elephant-shaped armoire and the elephant-shaped entertainment center and the whole elephant-themed decor you have going on in your relationship…

Being able to have a difficult conversation constructively is a learned skill; in the age of Outrage it’s even more rare than you’d expect. Why bother talking about the hard stuff when you can send a tweet/text/update in ALL CAPS and make your point and then (really show them!) ignore the response. Or get outragier because they’re ignoring the response.

There’s really only one way to get better at difficult conversations: practice having them. So here’s one big thing, seven steps, and three magic incantations to make practicing the difficult conversations easier.

The One Big Thing

This is the big thing, the most important, so please, say it with me: face to face is best. Preferably in physical space, but if not, then use one of the many video chat apps out there. In some cases, you can get away with a phone call, because you can hear tone and breathing and more.

Don’t. Try. Text.

Simply put: text is the worst way to have a difficult conversation. To continue the driving example, it’s putting me behind the wheel with earmuffs and a blindfold and then wondering why I keep crashing. Text is for what time will you get home and what do you want from the noodle place. Not I don’t understand how you can feel that way. Frankly, if you’re going to stick to text, you might as well not bother, because practicing bad habits is bad practice.

Which is about as useful as the teenager I was laying in bed and thinking about driving.

Seven Steps for Difficult Conversations

Got that? OK. Here are a few more easy, actionable steps. Do these, and your Difficult Conversation Game will get better. Not all at once; difficult is difficult, after all. But these are the skills you can practice and get better at it:

  1. Get comfortable. Wear comfortable clothes. Grab your beverage of choice. Be in a place where you feel safe – and that includes that you would feel ok disengaging from the conversation if you need to, which leads to…
  2. Make a Supportive Space. Coercion is a sneaky thing. It’s important that both of you are there for the conversation, not because you have to be. The best place for a difficult conversation is a neutral space – a park, a coffee shop (if you can keep your volume down), a zoo. Bad places are: the bed room. The car. Vacation. Dinner. Places where someone might feel pressured not to “ruin” things by being honest. Make sure you both have an “escape hatch” and can leave if you need to.
  3. Acknowledge the Purpose. Give each other credit! “I appreciate that you’re willing to try having this conversation with me. It’s difficult for me, and I imagine it is for you, too. So thanks.” It’s establishing a mutual respect on the most basic level: hey, we both showed up. That’s something. Sometimes that’s all you can do, but that’s still valuable practice.
  4. Set a Simple Goal and Boundary. Something like “I don’t expect us to agree with each other. I am just hoping to understand better why you feel this way.” Or “I’m not sure our experiences of what happened were the same; I’d like to listen to yours, and if you’re willing, have you listen to mine, just so we both feel heard.” If you’re lucky enough to reach that point, stop. Even if things are going well. That’s what practice is, right? Doing things over and over.
  5. Accept a Partial Victory. Sometimes the conversation is so difficult that the goal is simply “I would like us to talk about this for ten minutes without blowing up at each other.” So you talk, and you get to five minutes before someone throws up their hands and bails (remember, it’s important to have an escape route). GREAT! You managed five minutes. Next time, set the goal for six.
  6. Don’t Talk for Them. Keep the Difficult Conversation for the Difficult Conversation Place. No imaginary conversations in your head; no pithy rebuttals to things that they may have implied. In fact, that’s one of the key skills to learn: listen to what they say, not what you think they mean. It’s hard, because we tend to hear disagreement as an attack – something along the lines of “I don’t like what happened” as “I don’t like you”. More on that later.
  7. Stop Before You’re Done. Remember, this is practice! You’re not trying to solve the world’s problems, or even your own. Difficult conversations don’t go away overnight. To go back to the other metaphor, if you want the elephant to leave the room without smashing through the wall, you have to build a nice big sturdy door. And that takes time.

Three Magical Incantations

There phrases are magical tools for practicing difficult conversations. They may seem awkward at first, but that awkwardness is kind of an advantage – by keeping it almost like a ritual, you have a structure you can stay inside of to keep things from running off the rails.

  1. What I’m hearing you say is… followed by what you think they said. Their answer will either be “yes, exactly!” or “What? No! That’s not what I mean at all.” If it’s the latter, then they get to try again, and you say the phrase again, and it goes on. Then it’s your turn. It’s tiring and frustrating at times, but when you get to the “yes, exactly” point, it’s worth it.
  2. The story I’m telling myself is… followed by what those imaginary conversations have been like. This is a great way to be able to express your fears without having them come out as accusations. Imagine the difference in the phrase “You’re going to leave me!” both with and without that phrase in front of it.
  3. What I need to hear from you is… followed by the truth: what do you wish you could hear from them? You can substitute “want” for “need” if you like, but make sure you note the difference. This phrase implies that you trust that the person is not going to simply tell you what you want to hear, and that’s why that “escape hatch” is important – it takes away one of the common motivations for lying. This phrase often will astonish the person who hears it, because they honestly didn’t know. Of course, not every conversation ends with exactly what a person wants to hear…but it’s a great way to figure out where and what the person needs.

It’s worth repeating: these tools won’t automatically solve disagreements. They are not going to persuade people, they are not going to win hearts and minds. They are not supposed to.

What they will do is make the difficult conversations less scary, and give you tools to potentially turn them into paths to growth or, failing that, understanding. They only work, though, if you practice with them, and that means coming back again and again to the hard places.

If you do it, I salute your bravery. And I wish you well.

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