What makes a conversation hard? Or crucial? Or difficult? According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, a few factors come in to play which distinguish it from small talk.
1) Opposing or Varied Opinions – the first sign of a hard conversation is when you know that you and the other may have different opinions which conflict. For most humans, conflict = discomfort.
2) High Stakes – this is key. If the conversation had low importance, or didn’t matter to you, you wouldn’t feel invested enough to care. Making a conversation, well, easy. When it comes to discussing a friendship, though, or a disagreement between partners, usually we care – a LOT.
3) Strong Emotions – what makes us lose ability to think clearly in hard conversations is the height of our emotional experience. Physiological changes occur in the body, adrenaline pumps, and your thinking begins to function in a more primitive matter (think fight or flight). This makes focus, ease and clarity in a hard conversation hard to achieve.
Given these factors combined create stress and anxiety in a conversation, here are some steps to take whenever entering a conversation that feels uncomfortable. Let’s pretend you have a friend who has become a full blown negative nancy, and you no longer feel like seeing her because she drains your energy every time. Here’s how you would set that situation up:
1) Agree on a comfortable and mutual time to talk – the person should not feel blindsided or shocked. They have every right to feel as prepared for the conversation as you do. So you might say, “I know that things between us over the last few weeks have felt off, and I’m so sorry that I didn’t follow through on our plans yesterday. The truth is, there is something that has been weighing on me and I would love to talk to you about it. Do you have time to grab a coffee tomorrow?”
2) Address any emotions you are dealing with in that moment – being honest about your human emotions makes it OK and safe for the other person to access their vulnerable emotions too. By confessing that you are nervous, you are creating common ground between you and the other. For example, “I have been avoiding this conversation for so long because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, and part of me still really worries about doing that. But I also want our friendship to be great, and I want to be honest with you. “
3) Acknowledge that you have a role – if you look around, you may notice that all of your problems have one common denominator: YOU. Meaning, you very likely have to be accountable for some part of the dynamic. This is your chance to acknowledge that you are aware of this and you are not here to deflect blame. For example you might say, “although my feelings are hurt, I am fully aware that I have a role in this issue and part of my intention is to hear what you think my role was.”
4) Give context, explain the situation, and then ask for their perspective – At this point, you are addressing the issue. So if a friend has been particularly negative recently, and it’s been carrying a lot of weight, you might say “I know that in the last few months you have been going through a lot of changes, and I can relate to how stressful that can be. But I want to be honest with you and tell you that it has been having an effect on our friendship. I feel like when we are together, you are always negative, and that has had a big impact on me and our dynamic. I feel like you haven’t asked me about my life, and whenever something good happens to me, I’m afraid to share it with you because I don’t want to upset you. Does this sound like your experience? I would love to hear how it feels on your end.”
5) Reflect back what you hear and then offer a solution – Reflecting back is one of the most crucial steps in ensuring that a conversation is productive. So you might say, “What I hear you saying is that you feel like you are the only one who doesn’t have things sorted right now and it’s hard for you. Is that right?” If you got it right, then you might first apologize, and then offer a solution, “I am so sorry if I made you feel that way. I would love to help you feel more included in fun activities since it seems like you are feeling left out. Would it be helpful if I invited you to xyz on Saturday night?”
Now Take Action
Think of a conversation that you have been avoiding. Chances are, this conversation is weighing you down and impacting your confidence. Here is your chance to take care of it AND take care of the person on the other side. These conversations will liberate you from the burdens of hiding and lying to the people you care about the most. Design a conversation with a friend and execute. Come up with a great solution, and most likely, it will result in a deepening of your friendship/relationship.