A few weeks ago I found myself avoiding having two difficult conversations.
In one I’d been asked informally to give some feedback to a colleague on the impact on me of his choices. In the moment I hadn’t known what to say, so I had avoided saying anything.
In the other I decided to tell the truth about something and then ducked at the last minute. In effect I lied to both people by not saying anything. I didn’t feel comfortable. In fact it was pretty painful. I worked on both of these issues with my own coach and have made a commitment to honesty. I’ve contacted both the people concerned to arrange a time to talk. I feel better already.
Rule Number 1 – take the initiative
So the very first rule about these difficult conversations is Have Them. Don’t put them off and hope that time will make them easier. Don’t hide them under the carpet and pretend they’re not needed. Don’t wait for the other person to take the initiative. Be courageous. Say “I want to talk to you about XXX. I realise it may not be an easy conversation for either of us, and I’d like to try”.
Rule Number 2 is keep the relationship in mind just as much as the issue
What’s a conversation? The dictionary tells me it’s informal, it’s a dialogue. For me that means two or more people, and going back and forth. It’s not a one-sided telling someone else what I think of them or demanding that they listen and then change.
Karen Kimsey-House, the CEO of my coaching organisation, wrote recently that the word is also derived from the Latin meaning to turn towards. So a conversation is about both of us, and it’s about the relationship we have with each other. If you are having a conversation with a waiter about cold food the relationship may not be primary. If you’re having a conversation with your best friend about loss of trust it’s vital.
Rule Number 3 – the pain of having a difficult or heart sink conversation is less than that of not having it
There are lots of reasons for not having difficult conversations. The most common ones I come across are:
- not wanting to hurt or upset the other person
- avoiding conflict because it feels uncomfortable or threatening
- not knowing how to do it
- fear of making a bigger mess
In reality these difficult conversations usually go far better than we think they will. And they do take courage – so let’s call them courageous conversations.
Rule Number 4 – keep the end in mind
Before you begin, consider what you really want from this conversation. It’s possible to get hooked by what you want the other person to do. Things like “I want a proper apology” or “I don’t want him to raise his voice”.
These expectations of the other person may not be met – after all how does the other person know what you mean by a proper apology? And if they are not met then you have lost, or failed. That isn’t the intention here. So what’s your deeper purpose? To get a particular task done by tonight? To clear the air so you can keep a friendship? To find a way of getting all the household chores done? Keep that in mind and you will have greater chance of success.
Later on in the day I wrote this I had the first of my difficult conversations. Writing this has helped me to prepare and to be fully present whilst I had it.
Part 2, with rules 5-8 will be published here in a few days time.
Let me know if it helps you to have your own courageous conversations. And remember, Rule Number 1 is Have Them. Without you stepping up and taking the initiative there is just the existing muddle and mess. Be one of those who cleans up messes and untangles muddles. Our world needs people who do that.