7 Tips for Talking About Anything With Anyone

You can get what you need, if you know how to ask.

Posted Jun 05, 2015

ARENA Creative/Shutterstock
Source: ARENA Creative/Shutterstock

You're facing a potential conflict. So how should you proceed? Many books and articles urge you to have courageous conversations and give people direct, honest feedback. Whether speaking with your business partner, life partner, friend, or boss, these experts suggest that the sooner you let someone know what they did wrong, the better.

This advice does not always work.

Harvard professors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone found that almost everyone struggles with receiving and accepting feedback. Even well-intentioned suggestions, they write, "spark an emotional reaction, inject tension into the relationship, and bring communication to a halt.”

Most people experience feedback as a threat, and move, mentally and physically, into a defensive posture. According to psychologist Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D., “Criticism always tears down. It always abrades an idea, a behavior, a feeling, an opinion, or a person.” People may thank you, but still go away feeling badly or looking for ways to discount your point of view.

Normally, feedback involves telling people what they did wrong and then suggesting different behaviors based on what you would do in the same situation. Instead, consider sharing what you experienced and what behavior would cause you to feel differently in future situations.

To help, try following these 7 steps:

  1. Create a safe, trusting space. First, check your emotions. If you are angry, disappointed or afraid, the person will either mirror your emotions or shut down. Remember why this relationship is important to you and choose to feel curious, compassionate, caring, respectful, and/or hopeful. Then consider how a change will help both of you. The person has to feel that you have their best interest at heart, not just your own.
  2. Ask for permission. "Open the door before you walk in" by asking the person if he or she would be willing to resolve a problem that is having an effect on your relationship right now. If the person hesitates, sincerely share why the relationship is important to you and ask if there is a better time to talk.
  3. Start by describing what you thought occurred. Once the person says yes to your request, be specific when describing what behavior you witnessed and what words you thought the person said. Own your observation; share only what you believe you saw or heard. Do not analyze why the person acted a certain way or judge the behavior as right or wrong.
  4. Describe the impact on you. Describe how you felt when the person did or said something that affected you. Were you hurt, embarrassed, surprised, or disappointed? Speak in "I" statements. You are 100% qualified to speak about yourself, but not for others. Explain why you felt the way you did; again, do not blame the person or speculate why he or she behaved that way. Also, don’t go into telling a story. Clearly and briefly describe your reaction. Simply state what you experienced.
  5. When the person responds, listen. Do not interrupt or defend yourself. Let the person give you his or her perception and reasons. You still own your reaction without having to change another’s point of view. Remember, when you are listening:

    •  Stay 100% engaged with positive, respectful attention on the person. 

    •  Release "knowing" what the person is going to share. Be curious and accepting. You can still claim the impact the behavior had on you after the person has a chance to talk.

    •  Refrain from formulating what you want to say next while the person is talking. Maintain soft eye contact and listen through your heart.

    •  Notice when you want to admonish, criticize, inform like a parent or counsel like an elder. Then, release these urges without sharing them.

    •  Wait until the person is finished before you speak. Then acknowledge what he or she said before you offer a way forward.

  6. Suggest a way forward. This is your chance to ask for what you need the next time. In the future, how would you like the person to respond to you or act differently around you? What could the person do that would make you feel respected, acknowledged, or cared about, or would have you feel you could count on the person to do what they've promised? Again, be brief and specific. Get an agreement or a reasonable compromise before you move to close the conversation.
  7. End on a positive note. Acknowledge what went well in the conversation and what has been working well in the relationship. Thank the person for working on improving their relationship with you. Recognize that change takes time. Express gratitude for the chance to grow together.

For more suggestions on how to get a positive result in a difficult conversation, read the tips in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.