Monday, August 6, 2012

How to initiate a difficult conversation

Often the most difficult conversations to be had are with people who are important to you. The crucial ingredient is having the right mindset. 

The best approach is to start from the premise that there are no bad guys.  It can be hard to think like this if you are feeling hurt or guilty, but remember that continuing a cycle of blame and criticism (of yourself or others) just prevents relationships from being able to move forward. Whilst there may have been inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour, a willingness to see things differently is half way to resolving the problem. 

It takes courage to initiate a difficult conversation, so here are some guidelines to help make those difficult first steps easier.

1. Make an appointment.  It sounds a little formal but springing a difficult conversation on someone without warning puts them at a disadvantage and may mean they become defended.  Acknowledging there is a problem and that you'd like to talk about it allows time for both of you to feel prepared.  It is also important to put a timeframe on the meeting.  40 minutes is a good time span for a first meeting – any longer and more issues may get introduced and overload the situation, if time is too short you may feel pressured and have no time to get to the heart of the problem.

2. Acknowledge the purpose.  Good openers are ‘I want to talk about this because I don’t want to be thinking like this any more’ or ‘this may not come out right, but I want to say it to resolve our differences and not keep blaming’.  If you think an argument is likely then set up a common agreement from the start ‘let’s agree to no insults, aggression or walking out’.  Remember your intention, be clear what you would like as an outcome and if you feel things are going in circles (a sure sign of a fight brewing) pause, take a breath and re-focus. 

3.  Create the right space.  Choose the meeting place with sensitivity to both parties.  Remember, both sides are feeling vulnerable regardless of their behaviour.  Making it safe to meet helps you invest in a successful outcome.  Sometimes the best place to meet is in public, especially if there is a great deal of emotional charge in the relationship. 

In the right key, one can say anything.  In the wrong key, nothing: the only delicate part is the establishment of the key.   George Bernard Shaw

4.  Listen with your heart.  We defend ourselves when we believe we are under threat of attack.  Learning to talk and listen from a deeper place makes it safer for defences to come down.  Don’t go prepared with a speech or thinking you’ll know what the other will say, stay open and relaxed - as best you can - and be willing to be wrong!  If you stay right it blocks the possibility for change.  You always have the choice: to be right or to be kind.  Being right keeps the fight running, kindness benefits both parties.

5.  Review.  At the end of your time together express your gratitude for the opportunity to talk, review what was discussed and agreed.   Check-in with how you are both feeling and make sure you are both clear about what was discussed and what the next step needs to be. 
Being heard is so close to being loved that to the average person they are almost indistinguishable. David Augsburger 

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