One of the most important life skills is knowing how to navigate difficult conversations. After all, the way we approach these conversations can make or break any relationship, whether professional or personal.

Difficult conversations might include:

  • Approaching an employee or business partner not meeting expectations.
  • Owing up to a mistake;
  • Leaving a job; or
  • Ending your marriage or relationship.

It’s often easier to avoid these conversations altogether.  But that doesn’t bode well for any relationship.  Nor does carrying around resentment.  I’ve learned to see that difficult conversations can be opportunities for personal growth and to deepen important relationships.

Finessing your way through difficult conversations mainly involves really listening to where others are coming from and being intentional about what we’re really trying to say.  Below are 4 steps to mastering difficult conversations:

1.        Get right to the point.

First, get clear on the message you want to convey.  Make sure you know exactly what you want to talk about.  Match up the message you want to convey with how the other person is likely to hear it.

2.        Ask, don’t assume.

Our natural instinct is to assume we know why the other person is acting the way they are.  But for any difficult conversation to be successful, we need to understand where the other person is coming from.

Use tentative phrases like “it seems” or “maybe” to minimize coming off as confrontational.  For example, you might ask “What about this is important to you?”

3.        Listen effectively.

As humans, we all have a basic need to be heard and understood.  The most effective way you can listen and hear the other person is simply by being present – not just to the words being said, but the other person’s emotional experience.  You might notice emotions you hear behind the words – anger, fear, annoyance, for example.

4.        Respond with empathy.

When you’ve effectively listened to the other person, you can respond by relating to their emotions and paraphrase what you’re hearing.  For example, you might say, “it sounds like you felt betrayed.  I didn’t realize you saw things that way.”

This is likely to lead to greater trust and the other person is far more likely to listen and hear your version of things.  Share your own point of view clearly and ask for the other person’s input in a solution.

When we begin to navigate difficult conversations with an understanding and respect of another’s viewpoint, we can maintain and even strengthen our most important professional and personal relationships.

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