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5 Keys to Getting Through Difficult Conversations

Nervous laughter and, of course, the "Yes, but..."

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When someone is talking to you and their emotions change, you are given vital cues that can help move the conversation forward. A shift in tone can tell you if the other person is accepting or rejecting your ideas. A spurt in, or loss of, energy could reveal what the person really wants if there's a problem that is blocking progress.

When you're able to recognize such cues, you have a chance to align your desires with the other person's needs. People share information in many nonverbal ways; below are five cues to watch for that can help you bring a difficult conversation to a positive outcome.

The point of noticing emotional cues in a conversation is not to manipulate a person to accept your ideas, but to share what you observe. With compassionate curiosity, you should ask about what you noticed, so the other person has a chance to consider what triggered their behavior. They will also feel that you care enough to pay attention to their emotions instead of just wanting to deliver your message.

People need to feel you are listening to them, at many levels, before they will listen to you.

Remember to check your emotional state before you enter a conversation. People can react to your anger or disappointment. Try to feel hopeful, encouraging, compassionate, or calm. If you can’t shift your anger or disappointment, clearly tell the person why you are having a difficult time feeling anything else. What expectation do you have that they did not meet? Do you feel they broke a promise to you? Do you believe in and want more for the person than they are achieving right now? Tell them what is getting in the way of feeling hopeful, and let them know you believe in what they can achieve.

They need to feel you believe in them even if you are hurt by their actions.

Once you state the purpose of your conversation, ask for their thoughts and take in their response before you go on. Don’t wait for them to be quiet until you can talk again; listen to their explanations and watch for these things:

  1. Shift in tone or energy. Listen for a lowering of their voice or see whether the pace of their words speeds up. In the middle of an explanation, people often change right before they tell you what is most important to them, what they are afraid might happen, or what issue is keeping them from moving forward. When you notice a shift, mention it without judgment. Ask them to say more about what you noticed.
  2. Nervous laughter. Some people laugh when they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. Yale psychologist Oriana Aragon says this emotional balancing is similar to when we cry when we are happy. View nervous laughter as a sign of feeling badly, not rudeness, and ask what it would take for the person to feel more positive about the situation in the future. You might identify a starting point for moving forward.
  3. Change in eye contact. It is risky trying to interpret the meaning of eye contact (as stated in this post by Adrian Furnham) but a change in the pattern of eye contact could indicate you need to take a break from talking. Looking away or holding a steely gaze could mean you touched on something important that the person needs to express. With curiosity, not aggressiveness, ask the person to share what they disagree with. Calmly listen to the response.
  4. Easy, quick agreement. Like nervous laughter, the person might be trying to escape a feeling. Patiently ask them to put in their own words what they are agreeing to. If appropriate, ask for a date for when the action might occur. Then ask what could get in the way and what support the person might need to overcome the block.
  5. Adding “but” to an agreement. The word “but” is a signal that the person is about to tell you what they fear. Be curious about the beliefs behind the “but” to help the person determine if there is truth in the declaration or just a fear of what might occur.

To catch these cues, you need to get out of your own head and pay attention. Breathe and listen to your gut and heart, which are more adept at picking up such cues than your chatty brain. Sensory awareness is critical (this post shows you how to access it) in both giving and receiving information in a conversation. Once you notice the cues, integrate them into your conversation. If you ignore or miss them, you will miss the most important reasons for defensiveness or fear. With genuine curiosity, ask open-ended questions to better understand what the other person is feeling to see if you can find a way forward together.

Read more about handling difficult conversations in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.

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