How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Both honesty and benevolence are key.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

Sometimes in life, we have to have conversations that we know will be difficult both for us and for the person we’re talking to. A parent needs to reprimand a wayward teenager, a teacher needs to provide critical feedback to a failing student, or a manager needs to let an employee know they aren’t meeting expectations. Even in our most intimate relationships, we need to broach issues that both parties will find painful to discuss, such as when one partner feels the other isn’t meeting their needs.

According to University of Chicago psychologist Emma Levine, these conversations are difficult to initiate because they present the communicator with a moral dilemma. We all want to believe we’re good people, and yet difficult conversations seem to force us to choose between conflicting rules of moral behavior. Namely, we feel a need to be honest with other people, but at the same time, we feel an obligation to be kind to them.

In a recent article in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, Levine and her colleagues outline a series of experiments in which they survey both communicators and targets about their feelings after undergoing difficult conversations under controlled laboratory conditions. By crossing high versus low honesty with high versus low benevolence, the researchers were able to identify four communication strategies. Further, they also considered a fifth, compromise strategy.

The researchers then evaluated the success of each strategy as well as the thoughts and feelings of the communicators and targets before and after engaging in a difficult conversation. The outcomes of these communication strategies were as follows:

  • Omission. Low in both honesty and benevolence, this is a strategy in which the communicator fails to initiate the difficult conversation altogether. While the immediate unpleasantness of the confrontation is avoided, the target is kept from learning valuable information. In one study, for instance, practicing oncologists often reported that it was acceptable to keep terminal diagnoses from patients who falsely believed they were getting better. Patients, however, said they wanted to hear the truth from their doctors, whether the news was good or bad.

  • False hope. High in benevolence but low in truth, this is a strategy in which the communicator tells a “kind” falsehood to protect the target’s feelings. In fact, this strategy is only kind in the short term. While an unpleasant confrontation is avoided, the target fails to learn important information. Moreover, if the lie is found out, the target will likely resent the communicator, further damaging the relationship. For example, we give our intimate partners “false hope” when we tell them everything is fine, even though it’s not. Although we need to let go of the small stuff, larger issues have to be dealt with, or else the relationship will be damaged in the long run.

  • Brutal honesty. High in honesty but low in benevolence, this is a strategy in which the communicator simply lays out the issue at hand without taking the target’s feelings into consideration. However, the target tends to interpret what the communicator is saying as petty criticism or even as a personal affront. As a result, he rejects the message and fails to take in information that may be important for him. Levine and colleagues note that brutally honest communicators believe they’re acting in the best interests of their targets. But since this is never expressed, there’s no way for the targets to know.

  • Paltering. As a compromise strategy between honesty and benevolence, paltering involves the telling of a statement that is true and positive but irrelevant to the issue. For example, a failing student asks a teacher for feedback, and she tells him his attendance is good, while not mentioning that he’s otherwise failing the course. While communicators report that paltering feels more ethical, targets view it as no more acceptable than outright lying.

According to Levine and colleagues, communicators engage in these four ineffective strategies for two reasons. First, they focus mainly on their own feelings during the anticipated interaction. They remain oblivious to the true feelings of the target, and fail to understand that their intentions aren’t clear to the target, either. In other words, communicators act in an egocentric fashion, not only failing to take other perspectives into account but also assuming others see things the same way they do.

Second, communicators tend to focus on short-term rather than long-term benevolence toward the target. That is, they prefer to spare their target’s feelings in the moment—as well as their own discomfort at having to present bad news. However, the whole point of a difficult conversation is to enact long-term change that benefits the target, and often the communicator as well.

The researchers point out that there’s nothing immoral about causing a smaller short-term harm for a larger long-term benefit. For instance, doctors often need to inflict some pain to cure their patients. Likewise, children need to be reprimanded when they misbehave even though it hurts their feelings. This leads us to the most effective strategy for handling difficult conversations:

  • Benevolent honesty. In this approach, the communicator first articulates her sincere interest in the target’s long-term benefit. For instance, when having a difficult conversation with an intimate partner, this would be conveyed as a desire to build a stronger relationship. The communicator then lays out the concern in a straightforward manner. The exact words used aren’t nearly as important as the warmth of emotion that’s expressed. And because the target senses the communicator’s genuine concern, he or she is also more willing to listen to the feedback and take it to heart, even though hearing it is unpleasant in the moment.

Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of life, but they also offer opportunities for growth. When communicators express their concerns with benevolent honesty, they give their targets the opportunity to make changes and improve themselves. Moreover, successfully negotiating a difficult conversation gives the communicator a sense of personal accomplishment as well. Finally, the relationship between the communicator and the target is strengthened, leading to more fruitful interactions in the future.

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Levine, E. E., Roberts, A. R., & Cohen, T. R. (2020). Difficult conversations: navigating the tension between honesty and benevolence. Current Opinion in Psychology, 31, 38-43. [Advance online publication.]