Most everyone dreads the difficult, challenging conversation. This includes conversations in which we have to deliver unpleasant news, discuss a delicate subject, or talk about something that needs to change or has gone wrong.
Just thinking about having these conversations—whether with one’s partner, children (particularly adolescent or adult children), relatives, friends, or co-workers—can fill you with anxiety and trepidation, taking up space in your mind and distracting you from other important considerations that require your attention.
The anxiety can relate to concerns about bringing up a sensitive issue, being uncomfortable with setting or enforcing limits, or worry about how the other person will react. People may be fearful that the conversation will precipitate bad feelings or conflict. Because these kinds of conversations can create such discomfort, it’s natural and normal to want to avoid having them altogether. The problem with avoidance is that, in the absence of a situation resolving on its own, putting it off only allows it to continue and potentially get worse.
Planning and preparation can help turn down the volume of your apprehension and make it much more likely that the difficult conversations you need to have will be successful. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put it, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
For challenging or difficult topics, it’s best to plan to have the conversation in advance: “I’d like to talk with you about..." or "We really need to talk about..." Then, mutually agree on a time and a place for the conversation, and agree to meet in a place with enough space for all participants to be “comfortable enough” and to see each other clearly.
It’s never helpful to collect and hold on to feelings of frustration, anger, or resentment for days, weeks, or longer, and then dump them on another person all at once. Whenever possible, try to discuss challenging issues as they come up or soon thereafter.
Ultimately, you cannot control how the other person(s) will react to your efforts to engage them in challenging but necessary conversations. However, by being well prepared and following these guidelines, you can improve the skillfulness of your participation and maximize the chances that the conversation will serve its intended purpose.
Copyright 2017 Dan Mager, MSW