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November 14, 2018

Why Have Difficult Conversations?

Whether spending time with family, friends, or collaborating with teammates at work, chances are good you’ll eventually encounter the need to have a conversation that feels uncomfortable.

These difficult discussions typically involve sharing a frustration, giving critical feedback, working through a disagreement, or making someone aware of how they’ve negatively impacted you or the team.

A quick point of clarity: the discussions I’m referring to in this article aren’t the same as those that would address incidents of discrimination, racism, harassment, or abuse. Conversations about these situations would require a different approach, likely aided by advice or mediation from professionals in human resources, psychology, social work, or law.

Ok, now back to the regularly scheduled program…err…blog:

So why do difficult conversations feel so darn difficult?

If you’re like me, you’ve grown up avoiding confrontation, and so never gave yourself the opportunity to develop the conversational skills needed for these types of interactions. That’s part of the difficulty – the feeling of not being equipped, not knowing what to do or say. The other thing that makes these conversations difficult is that they feel very vulnerable. There’s risk and uncertainty involved. What if the other person gets defensive or upset? What if things get awkward or tense? What if I say something wrong? What if they end up disliking me because of the conversation?

With worst-case scenarios and big risks swirling around in our heads, it’s no wonder many of us convince ourselves that we’d rather endure the status quo than enter into a difficult conversation.

So, what are the reasons for having tough conversations? And why improve our ability to navigate them?

There’s usually something important at stake. Whether it’s greater happiness, reduced stress, a better business outcome, a more connected relationship, or improved collaboration, there’s typically something pretty darn critical at stake. These aren’t small potatoes. Are you willing to compromise something so important?

The worst-case isn’t the only case. When we encounter the possibility of vulnerability, our self-protection instinct often speaks up (ok, more like yells) to paint a vivid picture of how it might all go wrong. But this worst-case scenario is a narrow and extreme view of what might happen. It’s a product of an all-or-nothing mindset, which is a common unhelpful thinking style. There are other possible scenarios, ones that are more objective, reasonable, and likely.

It could make things better, even transformational. There’s the real possibility that having a difficult conversation could actually improve the situation – not just incrementally, but in a transformational way. You’ve probably seen this play out in your own life before, or in some of the best movies and stories in our culture. If we can enter into the vulnerability of a difficult conversation and be willing to move through the tough parts, we’ll come out the other side having forged a deeper level of connection.

You can become better at it. Navigating difficult conversations involves a set of mindsets and skills that can be learned and practiced over time, just like any other skill. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen in myself and with my clients. It just takes the desire to improve, the openness to learn, the determination to practice, and some grace to allow yourself to make mistakes along the way.

Ok, are you committed to having that difficult discussion you’ve been avoiding?

Next, check out these important prerequisites and review some strategies and phrasing for the discussion itself.

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