This is part two in a series of posts about how to be effective in difficult conversations. You can read part one here which is about preparing yourself for the conversation, and in this post I want to talk about the format for bringing up a difficult topic or request. Subsequent posts will look at how to manage the different responses that you might get to initiating a difficult conversation.
The best way to communicate in a difficult conversation is actually quite straight-forward, and most of us will have heard it before: state the facts, state what you think or feel about them, state what you would like to happen, and state how the other person might benefit from it. However, most of us struggle to do it for a variety of reasons. The most common of these is that for most of us, saying clearly what we think, feel and want is deeply uncomfortable. We’d much rather hedge around the issue, or focus on nit-picking or accusing the other person. Taking full ownership of our own thoughts, feelings and needs takes a lot of courage – and yet it is key to being effective in communication. If we can’t do that, we may get some outcome – but it won’t be the outcome we want, or we won’t feel good about how we got there.
Let’s start by looking at the format for communicating in difficult conversations, and then look at some of the other challenges that can arise in using this process. This particular format is drawn from the Dialectical Behavioural Therapy skills approach, but you’ll find very similar formats in other approaches to communication.
The first thing to do to initiate a difficult conversation is to describe what it is that you want to talk about or address. This might seem like the simplest step, but is actually probably one of the hardest and getting this right will set the tone for the whole conversation. The key here is to focus on just what is objectively observable. By that, I mean just what you can experience through your five senses, without any interpretation or judgement. A good way to do this is to imagine yourself as a news reporter or a scientist, dispassionately describing what you can see and observe. Try and be specific, and concise.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
Frank’s mother often talks over him when he is telling a story, and interrupts to tell him about similar experiences that she has had. This is pissing Frank off, and he wants to talk to her about it.
He can start this conversation by describing what is happening, and what he wants to talk about.
How do you imagine his mother might respond if he said something like:
“I wish you’d stop butting in, it’s really rude”
Probably not that well, right? Although he’s describing what she’s doing, he’s doing it using evocative language (butting in) and making a judgement about it (that it’s rude). What about this:
“I want to talk about how you don’t want to let me finish my stories”
Maybe a bit better, but there’s still an interpretation here. He’s making the assumption that his mother doesn’t want him to finish his stories. In fact, she might not even realise she is doing it.
This is why it’s so important to stick to just the observable facts. Otherwise, the other person can quickly feel attacked and become defensive, or you can end up going off on a tangent about whether your interpretation of events is correct. So in this case, Frank might say something like:
“I’d like to talk about the way you sometimes talk over me when I am telling a story” or, if it had just happened, “Did you notice that you just talked over me?”
This is simple, direct, and hard to argue with (except perhaps in the Monty Python sense).
The next step is to express what you feel or think about the topic you’ve raised. The key thing here is that you describe what you think and feel, not your thoughts about the other person’s thoughts/feelings/motivations. Keeping it brief, and starting with “I feel..” is a good way to go here.
Connor’s partner has been making jokes about how he is ‘a lazy asshole’ in front of their friends, and Connor has felt hurt and upset about this.
To put the first two steps together – describing and expressing – Connor might say something like:
“When you call me a ‘lazy asshole’ in front of our friends (describing), I feel hurt and embarrassed. (expressing)”
That’s it – with all this stuff, keeping it as short as you can is helpful. Often we want to justify and explain ourselves when we are communicating something difficult, but often all this does is that it takes away from the strength of what we’re saying and makes it easier to get sidetracked. For example, if Connor said:
“I know you don’t mean it as an insult, and I don’t mind you joking around with our friends, but I was wondering why you call me a lazy asshole sometimes because I think you probably know me well enough to know that that’s not really who I am, and I can feel quite hurt by it”
Now the conversation can go in a whole lot of different directions, away from what Connor wanted to talk about. Maybe the partner responds to the comment about not meaning it as an insult (“You’re right, I didn’t mean it that way so just realise it’s a joke and don’t worry”); maybe they respond to the question of ‘why’ (“Well I know you’re not like that all the time, but sometimes the stuff you do can be kinda lazy”), or any of a number of other options.
So the key things when you’re expressing yourself – keep it short and simple, and keep it about your thoughts and feelings. Another mistake Connor could make is to say something like:
“When you call me a ‘lazy asshole’ in front of our friends, I feel like you are putting me down”
Now Connor’s moved from describing his thoughts and feelings (hurt and embarrassed) to describing what he thinks his partner is doing (putting him down). This could be more likely to result in the partner becoming defensive and potentially derailing the conversation – “Well you put me down sometimes as well!”
The third step in the process is to state what you would like to happen or change. Again, keep it simple – “I would like it if you could not say those things about me in future”. Be clear about what you want, so that the other person knows what you are asking of them – otherwise it can feel as if you’re just having a gripe at them. By stating exactly what you would like to change, the other person can feel like they know how to resolve the situation – if that is what they choose to do!
It’s also helpful to think about what you want to change before you ask the other person. Having it clear in your mind will help you to feel confident asking, and will also avoid the situation that can often arise between people in relationship where one person has a complaint about the other, but can’t really tell them how to fix it!
Karen’s boss has been criticising her work in front of the other staff at the last few staff meetings. Karen is feeling embarrassed and undermined by this, and wants the boss to bring up any problems that she has with Karen before the meeting.
Following everything we’ve covered so far, Karen might approach this by saying something like:
“When you point out the problems with my work in front of the other staff at the meeting (describing), I feel embarrassed and undermined, and feel like I don’t get a chance to correct things (expressing). I’d really like it if you could let me know about anything I’ve done wrong before the meetings so that I can try and correct my mistakes (asserting)”
The final step in the process is to reinforce the other person, by letting them know what the positive outcome of them changing their behaviour will be. Ideally, you want to frame this in terms of what the other person gets out of it, but in close relationships it’s often just enough to let them know what it will mean to you. Carrying on from the example above, Karen might add something like “If you can let me know about any problems ahead of the meetings, then I’ll be able to fix them sooner and will get better at getting things right the first time!”
Let’s look at the other two examples, and how each of these might look if we went through all four steps of describing, expressing, asserting, and reinforcing.
Frank might say to his mother: “When you talk over me while I’m telling a story (describing), I feel frustrated and like the things I want to talk about don’t matter (expressing). I’d like it if you could let me finish before telling me what you think (asserting), and that way I’ll feel a lot more heard by you and also I’ll feel a lot more interested in hearing what you have to say (reinforcing)”
Connor might say to his partner: “When you joke about me being a ‘lazy asshole’ in front of our friends (describing), I can feel quite hurt and disrespected (expressing). Could you please not joke about me in that way (asserting) when you friends are around, cos that would help me feel more respected and loving towards you (reinforcing)”
Make sense? In all these instances, you’ll see that it’s important to keep things short, clear and direct. If we do it right, what could be a very difficult conversation can become very short and easy:
“Hey, when you do a certain thing I feel a certain way. I’d like it if you could not do that, and then we’ll both feel better” “Oh okay, I didn’t realise you felt that way – I’ll stop doing that”
Of course, in practice it’s rarely that simple as the other person can easily respond in a lot of different ways that make it hard to stick with this format – this will be the subject of subsequent posts. At the same time, the more we can stick to this format (or something similar) for these difficult conversations, the better they are likely to go. We don’t need to do this in every conversation (obviously – this would sound rather awkward if we talked this way all the time!), but it’s a useful approach for anything that feels difficult or uncomfortable to bring up.
If you do want to give it a go, I’d also strongly encourage you to write down what it is that you want to say to address each of these four points: describing what you want to talk about, expressing how you feel about it, asserting what you want to happen, and reinforcing the other person. That way you can get clear in your own mind about what you want to say, and you can also double-check what you’ve written to make sure that you are avoiding making judgements or interpretations, and that you’ve been short and clear. It shouldn’t be more than 2-3 sentences. Good luck!