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Those conversations you keep putting off…you know the ones I’m talking about. The uncomfortable, even painful ones. But avoiding them is also uncomfortable, giving you a nagging feeling that makes it hard to focus on anything else. Addressing these issues will not only give you peace of mind but will lead to deeper, more fulfilling relationships. Navigating difficult conversations might seem like an elusive skill. Thankfully, it’s not as hard as you think.
What conversations are you avoiding?
“Miss Findley, do you have a minute?”
My student stood hesitantly in the door of the teacher’s lounge. She saw that I was shuffling through a stack of papers.
“Oh,” she said. “If you’re busy, we can talk tomorrow.”
I nodded, relieved she was giving me an out.
Then I frowned. “Well…” I began. Tomorrow I actually wouldn’t have time.
“You’re busy then, too?” Implicit in that statement was, You’re avoiding me, aren’t you?
“Let’s just talk now,” I replied, resigned.
You see, I knew what she wanted to discuss. She’d gotten a B on her essay, and in her mind, a B might as well be an F. But (anticipating that she’d be upset), I’d already written a lengthy explanation on her paper indicating why she did not get an A.
What more was there to say?
My unwillingness to talk to her boiled down to two factors:
- Assigning a fair grade on an English essay is tricky enough without having to explain why you decided on that particular grade. It’s slippery and abstract, unlike a math problem that’s either right or wrong.
- These types of conversations annoy me because I was once that student. Obsessing over every B and A-. But where did this get me? Nowhere. Even if I still fixated over numbers, the “impressiveness” of your GPA shows very little congruence with that of your yearly income. This is demonstrated not just by my own story but countless others.
In retrospect, though, these were poor excuses for my avoiding the conversation. What matters is that my student feels heard. That she feels validated.
And that’s exactly what happened. It turned out to be a quick, painless conversation that ended on a bright note. She seemed satisfied with my explanation and my recommendations for getting an A on the next essay. I felt better for addressing her concerns and not avoiding her.
Why not just talk to them and get it over with?
We do this a lot in life. We put off conversations that we think will be uncomfortable.
Of course, this was a mild example. Sometimes, we fear that our relationship with our child, spouse, friend, or boss will be threatened if we attempt to communicate our true feelings.
Maybe we have something to say that the other person won’t like.
Or maybe we don’t know how to phrase what it is we want to say. We’re afraid that we won’t sound like the articulate beings we are in our heads. That the words will come out garbled. Maybe we’ll convey the opposite of what we meant. Maybe we’ll come across as an idiot or an insensitive jerk.
But as you’ve probably noticed, putting off these conversations doesn’t improve matters.
What resists persists.
Avoiding uncomfortable conversations creates tension within yourself because the longer you put it off, the larger your fear looms in your mind along with the guilt of putting it off. And it creates tension with the person who’s supposed to be on the receiving end of this conversation. They’ll wonder why you’re avoiding them.
Navigating Difficult Conversations: 4 Tips
1) Journal about it
What exactly is it that you’re afraid will happen as a result of this conversation?
Now, I’ve been a career avoider. But I wasn’t just avoiding particular conversations because I feared discomfort. It was because the emotions were buried so deep within me that I literally didn’t know how I felt about the situation.
By doing the journaling exercises in Debbie Ford’s The 21-Day Consciousness Cleanse, I found that the process of writing out all my concerns, anxieties, and unrealized fears worked to get them out of my head and give me clarity.
It also helped to minimize my worries. When I saw them on paper, they looked trivial, even silly.
2) Tune into what you’re feeling
Take the time to listen to and acknowledge these emotions for what they are. Sometimes uncomfortable emotions like sadness, guilt, or anger can be hidden even from ourselves.
Surprisingly, just identifying your emotions can help quiet your head. As Ronald J. Frederick writes in Living Like You Mean It, “Once we recognize them and label them for what they are, they often stop vying for our attention; the agitation they generate decreases, and we feel calmer.”
Once you invite up any negative feelings you have, you can release them. This helps you to enter the conversation with a clear head.
3) Identify your goal
Imagine the conversation unfolding in your head. Plan out what you want to say.
Most importantly, though, keep your purpose in mind. What is your goal both for the conversation and for your larger purpose?
For instance, maybe you’ve noticed your teenager daughter has fallen in with a bad crowd (or if that teenager was anything like me, spends an unhealthy amount of time alone).
Obviously, her immediate reaction will be hostility and defensiveness. But your short term goal is to get her to listen to everything you have to say without storming out of the room and not talking to you for a week. Your larger purpose is to help her recognize that you have her best interests at heart (even if she won’t admit it) and to convince her to act in ways that are more aligned with who she truly is.
Once you reframe the conversation so that you’re seeking to help the person or at least come to some sort of mutual agreement, rather than trying your hardest not to upset or enrage the person, you’ll feel much calmer about what lies ahead.
4) Prepare a conversation “toolbox”
While having the actual conversation, there are pointers you can keep in mind that will help it run more smoothly. This article mentions some helpful guidelines for navigating difficult conversations such as avoiding over-generalizations like “always” and “never,” sticking to the topic at hand (i.e. not dredging up past issues), dropping your assumptions, and using “I feel” statements rather than “you.”
This last point is a particularly good one. In middle school, we had a substitute teacher who taught us the importance of avoiding “you” statements. Of course, as middle-schoolers we were a bit baffled and there were certainly some sarcastic comments.
But guess what? I still remember his advice. And it makes sense. When I hear “you,” I immediately get defensive. But I can’t argue with someone else’s feelings.
Now, you might not remember all these pointers in the heat of emotion. Trust me, I’ve done most of the things that the list said NOT to do and then spent hours rehashing how the conversation should have gone.
But the more you practice having these types of conversations — and bringing up issues when they bother you, rather than letting the emotions build up (or avoiding the person who’s trying to have this conversation with you) — the more adept you’ll become at navigating them.
How do you prepare for challenging conversations? Or conversely, have you had any conversations that did not go so smoothly, and what did you learn from the experience?