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9 Ways to Manage Difficult Conversations

Research-based techniques for getting the outcome you want, without drama.

We all seem to know people who love confrontation and drama, but most of us would prefer to avoid the stress. Still, difficult conversations are sometimes unavoidable. The next time you find yourself in a contentious conversation with a friend, spouse, or co-worker, remember these nine techniques:

Have a vision. Borrow a trick from great athletes, and visualize your desired outcome for a tough conversation before you even begin. This will help you focus your talk on a solution, and ultimately manifest a positive result. It might even be helpful to share your vision and intention with the other person at the outset so they understand that you ultimately want to find a resolution.

Use “I” statements. One of the fastest ways to get people on the defensive in a conversation is to verbally point your finger by saying, “You always…”, “You never…”, or “You should have known…” Instead, try to frame all of your statements with the word “I.” This allows the other person to understand that you are merely stating your perspective. Try to begin sentences with “I feel…”, “When I…”, or “My concern is…”

Ask questions first. Seek to truly understand the other person’s perspective by asking thoughtful questions. If you don't understand what's being said or the motive behind the other person’s perspective, ask for clarification. Sometimes it's helpful to restate what you heard the other person say to ensure that you interpreted their words correctly. After they finish speaking, follow up with, “What I hear you saying is…”

Listen actively. Just because your ears are open doesn’t mean that you are listening to what the other person is saying. Hone your listening skills by staying present, making eye contact, and not interrupting. Also, avoid getting distracted by planning your response or finding fault in what the other person is saying while they are still talking.

Tone matters. Have you ever had someone tell you “I’m sorry,” but know that they didn’t mean it? Even though their words communicated an apology, their tone sounded defiant and unapologetic. This is because the actual words you use account for only about 7 percent of how people interpret what you say, while tone counts for about 38 percent. That means your tone is about 5 times more important than what you say. So make sure you come across as genuine, gentle and relaxed, regardless of what you have to say.

Be aware of body language. So what makes up the other 55 percent of communication? You guessed it: body language. Spoken language has only been used for a relatively small fraction of our evolution as a species, while body language and non-verbal communication have existed much longer. Our brains are wired to pick up on even the slightest nuances in nonverbal signaling. Not only should you learn to read other people's body language, you should become aware of your own nonverbal communication as well. Once you master body language, you will learn to guide an entire conversation outside of what is being said.

Focus on the behavior. If you are delivering criticism, make sure to differentiate between criticism of a person and criticism of a behavior. Notice the difference between saying, “You are really negative,” verses, “When you point out the flaws in other people, it makes me feel discouraged.” Criticizing someone directly simply makes him or her defensive, whereas discussing someone’s behavior gives the other person an opportunity to change.

Provide specific examples. Try to avoid vagueness or generalizations. Instead of saying, “You are consistently late,” try: “You've been 10 minutes late to the last three meetings.” By providing specific examples, you take all subjectivity out of the issue.

End with something positive. At the end of a difficult conversation, it is important to refocus the energy toward something positive. Some positive endings include expressing gratitude for the other person or excitement for your shared future, or complimenting the other person on a recent success.

Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of 28 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment.

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