How to Navigate Difficult Conversations

There are times in life when tough conversations need to be had.

Many people have had bad experiences when it comes to difficult conversations, and it can be easy to avoid them altogether out of fear.  Whether you’re being treated unfairly at work or a roommate’s behavior is bothering you, no one likes to be told that they’re doing something wrong.

Remember that your opinion is valuable and worth being heard, and learning to handle tough conversations the right way will help you to have productive discussions with positive outcomes.

1. Approach the Conversation Calmly

It’s important to make sure that you are calm and collected when you begin your difficult conversation.  If you are already upset when the conversation begins, there’s a good chance your emotions will get the best of you and the conversation will go poorly.

Many times this means waiting to have the conversation at a later date, after you have had time to cool off.  In the heat of the moment, blaming and name-calling is likely to win out over logic and problem-solving.

Waiting to have your conversation at another time will give you a chance to plan for your discussion so that you are prepared to offer positive alternatives and consider compromises.

2. Don’t Get Defensive

Your calm demeanor when entering the conversation can quickly evaporate if you become defensive.

It’s important to understand that no matter how calmly and politely you address your concerns, there’s a chance the other person may not take it well.  You cannot allow this to make you upset as well.

When people feel they’re being told they’ve done something wrong, they may experience a variety of emotions: embarrassment, humiliation, shame, and anger.  Their response to these emotions may be to accuse you of doing something wrong as well.

If you allow them to provoke you, your conversation will not be productive.  Remaining calm in the face of their accusations will help them to calm down and hear you out instead of escalating the situation beyond repair.

Click here if you need tips on what to do when people make fun of you.

3. Take Responsibility

If they do make accusations towards you, calmly accept responsibility. Accepting responsibility does not necessarily mean you are at fault. Accepting responsibility also makes people respect you.

Do say, “I’m sorry that when I ___________ it made you feel ______________.  I intended to ______________, not ______________.”

Do not say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

The second response does not show that you accept responsibility, and it will not placate the other person.  This statement causes people to feel that you’re brushing off their concerns and is unproductive.

The first response accepts that what you did caused the other person to feel a certain way (whether it should have or not) and clarifies the true intent behind your actions.

4. Don’t Play the Blame Game

When having a difficult conversation, make sure to use “I” statements and not “you” statements.

For example, rather than saying “You made it impossible for me to get my work done,” say instead, “I had a hard time getting things done because of the interruptions.”

The person will understand that it’s their interruptions you are referring to, but because you said it in a non-accusatory way, they will be more accepting of your statement.

“You” statements put all of the blame on the other person, and even if it’s justified, it will not be well-received.  If you want to have a productive conversation, use “I” statements instead.

5. Be Prepared to Offer Solutions

Do not enter a difficult conversation without ideas for possible solutions.  If you are ready to bring up an issue you are having, you need to be able to make suggestions for improvement instead of making the other person do all the “fixing.”

If you have to, write them down.  You can even give your list to the other person to allow them to consider your suggestions before coming back to you with their own ideas or compromises.

A productive discussion is one that ends in a mutually satisfying solution, so coming prepared with your own ideas will help the conversation run more smoothly.

6. Focus on the Issue at Hand

When you are having your difficult discussion, it’s important to avoid dragging in other issues you’re currently having or past arguments that have occurred.  Doing this will cause the other person to feel attacked and will escalate the situation unnecessarily.

Focusing on the issue at hand also means addressing the problem itself, not the person’s character.  

If you say, “You left your wet towel on the bathroom floor again, and last week you left the milk on the counter and it spoiled.  You’re such a lazy slob and I can’t take it anymore!”, you will have an extremely unpleasant situation on your hands that most likely will not end well for anyone.

By saying this, you have not only played the blame game and attacked the person’s character, but you’ve also brought up past issues instead of focusing on the current one.  This will not get you the result you are hoping for.

Instead, say, “I know you stay really busy, but I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with all the housework that needs to get done.  Do you think we could sit down some time and come up with a cleaning schedule that works for both of us?”

The other person will feel that you respect their time and their busy schedule, and will be much more open to helping you out.

Difficult conversations may not be pleasant, but they’re an important part of life because they help us to address our problems and learn from our mistakes.  Learning how to correctly handle these discussions will save you some heartache and make your life easier and more enjoyable.

[Is your relationship still just draining you even if you tried to fix it? Here’s a list on how to tell if you got a fake or toxic friend.]

What are some difficult conversations you’ve had recently? Would using these tips have made them more productive? Let us know in the comments!

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Amanda is an introvert who's experienced too many awkward moments (of her own making) to count. Amanda has a cat, a coffee obsession, and more books than one person should reasonably own. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development and Learning from the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN, where she did extensive study of lifespan psychology.

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