When was the last time you had a difficult conversation with someone? How did it go? Whether it’s bringing up a behaviour you don’t like with a family member, asking your boss for a raise, or setting boundaries with a friend, we all tend to have ways of avoiding the most difficult conversations in our lives. As a result, we often end up feeling like certain topics can’t be talked about – at least not easily – and because we often avoid these conversations, we don’t get better at them.
I intend to write a series of posts about how to manage difficult conversations, and ways to be effective in them. Part one will focus on how to initiate a conversation about a difficult topic, while subsequent parts will focus on how to work with the different responses you will often get to bringing up challenging questions or requests.
To start with, I want to define what I mean by a ‘difficult conversation’. The simplest way to tell if something is going to be a difficult conversation for you is to check how you feel about bringing it up – if you feel anxious, nervous, or worried about how the other person will respond to you bringing up a topic or asking a particular question, that’s a difficult conversation. If you’d rather put it off, or find yourself procrastinating – thinking “Oh, I’ll tell them the next time it happens” – that’s a difficult conversation. Often this might involve expressing a viewpoint or a feeling that you expect the other person might find challenging, or it might be asking the other person to act (or not act) in some way – you’re asking them to make a change.
This is generally because we’re expecting, rightly or wrongly, that what the other person thinks, feels and wants will conflict with what we think, feel or want – therefore there’s the possibility of hurt feelings, of defensiveness or argument. It’s these sorts of conversations that I hope these posts will help with. I also want to acknowledge a couple of people whose ideas have largely influenced my writing. Part of the reason for wanting to write about this topic was a series of blog posts written by American psychiatrist David M Allen – you can find this series of posts here. I’ve recommended these to a number of people, as I think some of his ideas for managing responses to difficult conversations are great, although he mostly talks about them in the context of family metacommunication. Some readers have told me that they have found these posts difficult to engage with as a lay reader, and so my hope is to build on David’s ideas to reach a different audience.
I’ve also drawn a lot on the ideas of Marsha Linehan, creator of the Dialectical Behavioural approach to therapy. I strongly recommend reading her writing for anyone interested in developing their interpersonal effectiveness.
One of the valuable ideas that Linehan brings into her approach is the idea of having multiple priorities during a difficult conversation. In short, in any conversation it’s valuable for us to think about how important each of the following things are to us:
1) The objective. The objective is what we want to happen or change as a result of the conversation. This might be a change in the other person’s behaviour, or to reach an agreement.
2) The relationship. This is how we want the other person to feel and think about us after the conversation.
3) Integrity defines how we want to think and feel about ourselves after the conversation.
In every conversation, all of these things will be relevant to some degree.
Kathy is angry with her friend who often cancels appointments at the last minute. Kathy wants to talk to her friend about this, and how she feels about it. More importantly though, she would like her friend to change her behaviour and give her more notice if she wants to cancel an arrangement. Kathy has a history of not speaking her mind and letting other people take advantage of this, and wants to make sure she stands up for herself better in this conversation.
In the above example, we can see the three points outlined above. The objective Kathy wants is for her friend to give more notice if she is cancelling an appointment. The relationship is quite important to Kathy, and she wants her friend to still respect and like her after the conversation, and at the same time it is important to Kathy that she maintain her self-respect and integrity by asserting herself, and not backing down too easily – she knows it would be easy to say something like ‘Oh, I don’t mind, don’t worry about it’.
In any conversation then, it can be really helpful for us to think about these three priorities and decide which of the three is most important to us, and which are less important. This will help guide us in how we approach the conversation itself.
For example, if Kathy decides that the most important thing is to achieve her objective – to make sure that her friend changes her behaviour – then she might be willing to be more demanding of her friend even if it upsets the friend, or leads to her viewing Kathy as pushy or aggressive.
If, on the other hand, the most important thing is the relationship with her friend, Kathy might approach the conversation differently. She might choose to say how she feels and what she wants, but be willing to accept if her friend does not want to change her behaviour in order to maintain the friendship.
Lastly, if she decides that maintaining her integrity is most important, then she might focus on speaking and acting in a way that she can feel proud of and satisfied with in herself, regardless of how the conversation ends. This might mean (depending on what is important to her) making an effort to express herself clearly, not apologising for her point of view, remaining calm, and not raising her voice or becoming defensive.
In most difficult conversations, all three things will feel important to us, but it can be very helpful to consider beforehand which is the most important. Sometimes (perhaps often) we will find that difficult conversations don’t actually end up being nearly as bad as we expect, and we are able to achieve our objective while still maintaining the relationship and feeling good about ourselves. For those times where that’s not possible, having it clear in our mind what our priorities are will give us clarity and confidence to go forward.
It is very likely that this will vary from situation to situation, and from person to person. For example, if I am asking my boss for a raise because I cannot afford to pay my bills on my current salary, then my objective is likely much more important to me than the relationship with my boss or my integrity. If I’m wanting to talk with a family member about the way they criticise me and put me down, my integrity might be the most important thing – no matter how the conversation goes, it’s most important to me that I don’t also start putting myself down. With another family member, it might be that the relationship is the most important thing. Having this clear in our mind will help us know how to respond and how much to pursue our objective during the conversation itself.
The reality of course is that often while all three priorities are important to us, at times we will have to sacrifice one if we really want to achieve another. Maybe the only way to convince my boss to give me a raise is to share details about my personal life and financial hardship that I would rather not share. Then I can achieve my objective (getting a raise) at the cost of my integrity (feeling exposed and embarrassed about having to share personal details). Or maybe I can do it at the cost of my relationship with my boss, by becoming angry and refusing to back down. On the flip side, maybe I maintain a relationship with a friend by agreeing to accept a behaviour that makes me feel hurt and angry, because that behaviour is only a part of who they are and I value our friendship.
To put these ideas into practice, I’d really encourage you to ask yourself these questions and even write down your answers when approaching a difficult conversation:
1) What do I want to happen, or what do I want to change, as a result of this conversation?
1a) Which ways of speaking or acting will help me achieve my objective, and which will hinder it?
2) How do I want the other person to think and feel about me after this conversation?
2a) What ways of speaking and acting are likely to affect how the other person thinks and feels about me?
3) How do I want to think and feel about myself after this conversation?
3a) What ways of speaking and acting are likely to affect how I think and feel about myself?
4) Which of these three things is most important to me right now?
I’ll talk more in future posts about ways of speaking and acting during conversations, but for now for each of the follow-up questions, consider how your way of speaking and acting during the conversation is likely to affect the outcome, how the other person feels about you, and how you feel about yourself. This could include speaking forcefully vs speaking passively, making accusations vs asking questions, making demands vs making requests, acting serious vs acting light-hearted, being flexible vs being firm. As you think about these things, you’ll probably realise that some ways of speaking or acting might help you achieve some priorities more than others. For example, being light-hearted when bringing up a difficult topic might put the other person at ease and help maintain the relationship with them, but it might also lead to them not taking what you say seriously, and therefore you might be less likely to achieve your objective. Being forceful and demanding might have the opposite effect. Choosing your approach to match what is most important to you is an important part of being effective in conversation.
That’s all for the first post in this series. I’ve touched on the three priorities that come up in any conversation – the outcome, what you want to happen as a result of the conversation; the relationship, how you want the other person to think and feel about you; and integrity, how you want to think and feel about yourself. In the next post we will look at how to start a difficult conversation in a way that is non-confrontational and gives you the best chance of success by focusing on the objective, expressing yourself clearly, stating what you want, and reinforcing the other person.