Difficult Conversations

It’s a fact of life that there will be times when we must communicate with someone else about something that may make both parties uncomfortable. Yes, we all will have many difficult conversations over the course of our lives – personally and professionally. And while no one looks forward to such conversations, it is important that they not be avoided. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen situations where two people just need to have that hard conversation to get back on the same page. Instead, they avoid each other entirely for a while. Then if by happenstance they are thrown together, there are awkward moments galore. I’ve seen friendships end and business partnerships blow up, simply because two people can’t come to grips with the fact that they need to clear the air and “talk it out.”

Why are these conversations so hard to have in the first place? Often it evolves from one of three places. First, we may perceive the encounter to be one where conflict will be present, and we are highly allergic to conflict. Second, we may have let ourselves be hurt and just can’t stand the thought of interacting with the person who allegedly hurt us. Or third, we may be concerned that our conversation with the other person may be hurtful to them and we don’t want to be the one to play that role. So, we suffer in silence . . . or maybe not. Rather than addressing the issue with the other person, we may have a tendency to talk to everyone else about the situation – friends, family, colleagues – often wringing our hands in despair and playing the tape(s) over and over for them. Here’s the bottom-line question. Did taking this tack make us feel any better? Probably not. Did it solve the problem? Definitely not. Were others around us unnecessarily drawn into the negativity of the situation. Almost always.

Refraining from having an honest conversation about a difficult matter does a disservice to our relationships. Now assume that we have finally decided to address the issue. Let’s talk rules of engagement. Should we have these conversations one-on-one or should a third-party be present? While there are exceptions to the rule, I think we need to have the guts to deal directly with the other person. While it may help our courage to have a wingman, the person with whom we are trying to resolve an issue may not feel comfortable putting all his or her cards on the table. Do we have the conversation in private, or do it in a public place? I’ve witnessed situations where one person wants to meet with the other in a restaurant “to avoid a meltdown.” This could be perceived by the other party as being manipulative and further strains the relationship. I’m always in favor of meeting in private and behind closed doors if possible.

Our body language is critical to the success of the encounter. We should be as open and relaxed as we possibly can. Sitting with our body turned away from the other person and our arms folded doesn’t send the message that we want to resolve anything. Keeping palms open, smiling and making eye contact will help put the other person at ease. How direct do we want the conversation to be? In my book, directness is fine, but we need to use warm candor instead of brutal honesty. We don’t need to sugarcoat our dialogue, but we must be sensitive to the other person’s feelings. If we’re there to score points and prove that we are right and they are wrong, then by all means, rub their nose in it. But if we really want resolution, we are gentle with our words while still making certain that there is no ambiguity in what we are saying.

I’ve also found that sticking to the facts is a good practice. That said, we must remember that the reason the conversation may be difficult in the first place could be due to emotions that ran amuck. Thus, we need to have empathy for the emotional factor but keep the discussion in the logical realm. And sometimes, rehashing the disagreement isn’t necessarily productive – it may be best to just apologize and move on (if an apology is warranted).

Difficult conversations are necessary and will generally be successful by adhering to this simple principle. I will treat the other person the same way I want to be treated.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.