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7 Ways to Make Your Most Difficult Conversations Easier

Will you be able to resolve a conflict, or just add fuel to the fire?

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We all have to have difficult conversations at some point in our lives. When they go well, they can resolve conflicts, spur growth, and be a catalyst to insight and understanding. When they go poorly, they can be the equivalent of adding a vat of bacon grease to a fire already burning out of control.

One of the biggest challenges of tough discussions, of course, is that we may carry a significant amount of anxiety about them before we even start. Our worry and fear can make us talk more than listen, fail to use thoughtful wording, and exhibit hostile or disengaged body language. If there's a conversation that you are dreading, it pays to think it through in a systematic way. The more you can get yourself comfortable with what will happen, the more receptive to a positive outcome you'll be. Here are 7 tips to keep in mind:

1. Acknowledge your anxiety.

You can best manage your nervousness by owning it. Take some deep breaths (diaphragmatic breathing is a very useful technique), do some yoga moves or stretches (even rolling your neck around while you sit at your desk can be helpful), have a mantra, or visualize a safe and comforting place. Cognitively, you can work to reframe the situation in your mind. Focus not on the challenges of the conversation, but on your goals and what you may gain from it. Visualize how much better you'll feel as you emerge, whether having smoothed over a conflict or gotten something out in the open that was causing undue stress. If need be, you can acknowledge your anxiety as you start the conversation as well, even by saying something as simple as "This conversation has been on my mind, and I find myself a bit uneasy about it." It may humanize you, and help both of you let down your guard.

2. Plan, but don't overplan.

A good example of planning is to have a few phrases prepared that sound good to your ear—perhaps respectful euphemisms you'll use to refer to something awkward or difficult. Have an opener, and a general idea of what you can say to extract yourself from the conversation at the end, or to keep it from escalating if it's likely to get heated. The more specifically you plan your words, though, the more they can sound scripted and artificial. It also leaves you less able to be flexible when the conversation doesn't go as expected. Perhaps worst of all, it makes you more likely to be so focused on what you're saying that you're not doing any listening. This will cause an instant disconnect—and make the other person feel unheard and defensive.

3. Pick the right setting.

So many people focus so much on the conversation itself—or their anxiety over it—that they spontaneously decide to jump into it the moment they feel ready, never mind how the other person is feeling. It is critical to choose a time and a place where the other person will be most likely to be receptive. If they are rushed, don't have much privacy, are already annoyed about something else, or concerned about a particularly long to-do list, your conversation will likely be over before it begins.

4. Use "I" statements.

This is a couples' therapist's old favorite, but that's because it works. Putting your concerns into words that express your feelings, and stating them that way—rather than presenting them as accusations—can be an effective way to convey your message. Note the stark difference between the following statements:

  • "I've been feeling somewhat hurt and disconnected from you when you haven't been coming home on time. I've missed you, and it's been preoccupying me. I want to work this through so I can feel better about us"
  • "You have been late all week, and you don't seem to value my time. You always do this and it's like you don't even care."

Which discussion do you think will go better?

5. Listen as much as talk.

Many people treat some of the most important conversations of their lives as soliloquies. It could be because of nervous energy ("Let me just spill out everything I planned before I forget!") or deep-seated fear ("What if I stop talking and she tells me I'm fired?") Regardless, giving the other person space to talk, and to truly be heard by you, will yield dividends far richer than just delivering a script to a muted audience.

6. Think about the take-home message.

What is it that you really want from this conversation: To tell someone they hurt you? To clear the air about something that's already happened? To apologize? To get an apology? To tell them something hard to hear that they do not yet know? The more you can understand your overall goals, the more you can craft your big-picture message—and be able to stick to it when you get stuck during the more challenging parts of the interaction.

7. Watch your body language.

Without actually observing yourself, you may not realize just how unwelcoming your body language can be. Think consciously about the type of mood you want to convey, and use your nonverbal communication skills to do just that. You want to appear engaged, interested, and respectful. Try using warm eye contact, open arms rather than crossed, and facing the person rather than turning away. Do not exhibit too many signs of impatience or frustration, like nail-biting, hair-behind-ear-tucking, leg shifting, foot-tapping, phone-glancing, or clenched knuckles.

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