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How to tackle difficult conversations

It's important to determine when it's appropriate to speak up on a sensitive issue, and how to do so when there is a need. Here are seven tips from a professional facilitator for tackling tough conversations.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
A participant wears a peace sign during an anti-war rally in Moscow March 15.

Telling the truth about how someone has made you feel is tricky. We all have to learn to stand up for ourselves and manage conflict in a healthy way, but it’s up to each of us to determine when it’s appropriate or worthwhile to speak up, rather than letting the little things slide. And when we do have conversations that are crucial to determining the state of our relationships, it can be hard to know how to speak out of love instead of anger.

Whenever this topic has come up in groups I have worked with, and even in general conversation, the discussion always goes to our own agonizing internal dialogue that happens around the importance of speaking our truth, versus the impact of how that will play out if we actually go through with it. Usually, the fear is around the damage that will be done to the other person if we speak our mind because “they might take it the wrong way.”

Take heart. There is a way to deepen our relationships with others as we commit to greater honesty in our conversations.

1. Know you can – and need to – stand in your truth
The first key to knowing what to do is recognizing that we have to stand by what’s true for us if we consider it to be important. It might not be true or important for anybody else on the planet, but if it’s true to us, then we need the other person/people to hear it. 

2. Take a moment
The second key is to understand that whenever anything is important to us, we tend to get passionate and emotional about it, and too often we blurt that out. Often, the other party involved is pushing our buttons, and not seeing what’s important for us, so we often react quickly because we find it really annoying.

What comes out of our mouth tends to come out in a defensive way and when we are defensive, the other party feels attacked. At this point, any chance of the other party hearing what’s true to you is lost. Pausing before you speak could be the most important 2 or 3 seconds of the whole exercise! If you have the luxury of sleeping on the issue, and preparing your response, then this can really put you into a good space when you speak.

3. Relax, breathe… and speak from the heart
The next key is to speak from your heart – not your emotion. Getting to know your heart is something that takes practice. But when we relax, breathe, and slow down, we will very naturally find ourselves in a more considered, less reactive place. It’s only when things become heated that we shift into a kind of “fight or flight” place where we can hurt both ourselves and each other.

4. Start with something you appreciate about them.
This will help them understand why you are interested in working on the relationship, rather than walking away from it or letting it deteriorate. Example: “Look, I need to say something to you because I really value your friendship/insight/leadership/advice.”

5. Acknowledge your own internal dilemma
What you’re trying to say is hard. It may come out wrong. You’re probably feeling nervous and fearful of the consequences of your words. Why not say that?  When we reveal that vulnerability to people, they immediately become more receptive to what we have to say, because in that vulnerability they also sense your willingness to be honest, and that opens up their compassion. Example: “I’ve got to say, I’m feeling quite nervous about this, because I’m aware that this may not come out right, so please forgive me if I get it wrong." 

6. Explain how you see the situation
What’s being experienced by you has to be communicated as YOUR experience, the way YOU see things. For example: “When you say (a, b, c…) I feel like I’ve done something wrong. You’re very direct when you speak to me and I think that’s what’s causing my anxiety.” Compare that statement with: “Why do you treat me so badly? You’re always ordering me around!” The first statement really gives the person receiving your message a chance to see their part in the problem whereas the judgmental, emotional, and finger-pointing nature of the second is likely to trigger a defensive response and will block a person’s capacity to hear what you are trying to say.

7. Inquire about them
You’ll only take the risk to speak your truth when the issue is important, and usually that happens because the person or people involved are also important to you. So make sure that comes across. Often that care is eclipsed by the anger or other emotion we are experiencing.

Example: “I need to tell you that I’m struggling with what’s happened between us recently. There’s been three times when I’ve tried to organize a time to meet with you, and each time you have cancelled. It’s like you're unable to keep those appointments. Have you noticed that yourself? I’m wondering if everything is alright. Is there something I’ve done?

This article originally appeared on the blog, published by the Start Empathy project from Ashoka.


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