Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason: we have something important we need to discuss, but we often come into the conversation anxious or stressed out. No matter how prepared you are, it’s easy to say the wrong thing. If the goal is change, offending or angering the other person won’t get you there.
In a recent article, author James R. Detert points out the the key to navigating a difficult conversation is to craft our messages while keeping the other person’s feelings and opinions in mind. Drawing on 29 years of research, he offers six guidelines to avoid to turn a difficult conversation into a productive one:
Don’t assume your viewpoint is obvious: Naive realism is the belief that what you think you see is objective reality that others will clearly see and agree with. Things are rarely 100% black-or-white; others may see things differently than you. Suggesting that anything but your view is stupid will insult them and make the task of agreeing on the topic at hand harder.
Don’t exaggerate: It only takes one counter-case to disprove “you always” and “you never” statements. Focus on WHAT you want to see changed, not how often or how many times it happens.
Don’t tell others what they should do: People feel judged by “should” statements. Give them the opportunity to decide for themselves what to do. Asking “Have you thought of?”, “How would things be different if you…”, or “You said you want… How does this help make that happen?” increase your odds of seeing the change you want.
Don’t blame others for your feelings: Saying “You make me so angry when you interrupt me” turns the conversation into one about your emotions not the change you want to see. People hate being blamed for things, so they may defend themselves, which changes the topic of the conversation. Instead, keep the focus on what you want to change. Asking “Could you please not interrupt me until I’m finished?” keeps the focus in the right palce.
Don’t challenge someone’s character or integrity: You may feel that they are “wrong”; saying this will most likely make them defensive since we all have a strong need to see ourselves as decent and moral. Instead, keep the focus on what needs to change, not on their character..
Don’t say “It’s not personal”: It is. If it wasn’t, the two of you wouldn’t be talking about it.
James says that it is important to remember WHY you are having this difficult conversation. If the goal is to find a path toward change, you can get a lot of stuff right (your persuasive core arguments, your data and solutions, the setting and timing) and still fail due to the seemingly small communication missteps described above. He ends his article with the good news that getting the small stuff right IS possible, if we spend a little time to notice and stop the stuff what will get in the way of talking about the important stuff.