Mastering Tough Conversations

Tough conversations involve issues you consider important but difficult to discuss with people you care about. The topics are matters you would prefer to avoid but know you can’t. Otherwise, things will go from bad to worse. These conversations are a normal part of living in a world where we can’t agree on everything, especially around who’s right and who’s wrong, and why it matters. They involve disagreements about what happened (or should have happened), how we feel about it and who we believe we are (or want to be).

How do you respond to people who refuse to reason with you? To someone who lies or threatens you? How do you keep from getting backed into a corner or withholding your anger, embarrassment or frustration? How do you handle character assassination? Tough conversations mishandled can quickly morph into toxic, zero-sum games that carry a heavy emotional load and, despite our noble intentions, can cause irreparable harm to relationships and reputations.

Contentious conversations are rarely about facts. They’re about conflicting perceptions and values. They’re more about what people think is important than what actually is. Focusing on motives or standards (like fairness) only heightens the disagreement, denial and animosity while diminishing objectivity, exploration and learning. In a recent blog, I provided advice on how to win an argument. A tough conversation need not be an argument. Arguing inhibits us from understanding by impairing an exploration of alternatives. Arguing pulls us apart rather than pushing us toward common ground.

Unless you’re a trained psychologist and it’s necessary for your work, let go of the need or desire to understand why people behave as they do. Because we never will truly know why. When your partner forgets to pick up the carton of milk you requested in the morning, he’s irresponsible. But when you forget to do something, it’s because you’re stressed. When a coworker criticizes your work in front of your colleagues, she’s trying to undermine you. But when you offer suggestions for improvement, you’re trying to be helpful. We assume motives define character. They don’t. Focusing on blame is a waste of time – it encourages defensiveness and hinders problem solving.

Feelings do matter. They’re often the heart of difficult conversations. An inability to honestly acknowledge the emotional element in our disagreements contaminates communication. Handling prickly subjects isn’t about acceptance or rejection of our differences, but rather figuring out what they are and why they exist. Discovering how someone feels about the issue in dispute doesn’t obligate you to give up on your own views. Before we can move forward, we need to know where we currently stand.

Shift the conversation from proving a point or gaining an advantage to acquiring a better understanding of the emotions underlying the conflict. Unexpressed feelings make it difficult to listen. They alter our voice and compromise our choice of words but are quickly discerned in facial gestures. They can take the form of extended silences, sarcasm or defensive posturing. While we may not be good at detecting falsehoods, most of us know when someone is either feigning or suppressing their true feelings.

The notion that others make you feel the way you do is nonsense; we make ourselves feel as we do by how we choose to think about what we hear or see. Own your feelings; don’t attribute their cause to others. That’s a convenient, self-effacing cop-out. While it’s important to speak your mind, it’s just as important to articulate why you feel that way. Saying “I feel …” is not an admission of weakness; being vulnerable is how we express our humility, demonstrate inner strength and convey authenticity.

If, in your view, the issue in dispute is truly consequential, and things are not going as you had hoped, you will need to take a break, regain your composure and recalibrate your approach. Handling touchy subjects with other strong-willed individuals requires mature self-confidence and grace under fire. Some call this “gravitas” (projecting a character of substance) which demands the ability to show appropriate (but not over) deference, a calm and unflappable demeanor, and knowing how to stand your ground in a firm (but non-confrontational) manner.

During this time out, focus on what you’ve learned, not why your point hasn’t resonated. Take a walk, get some air, check for distortions, denials or exaggerations – yours as well as theirs. Determine whether the essence of the conflict has been fully conveyed and understood. Think about a better strategy for achieving a meeting of the minds. Do you need to reframe your assertions: take what the other person said and translate it into words or ideas with which they’re more comfortable?

Despite your best efforts, you will encounter people who won’t change. We are all capable of good and bad behaviours. We can lie, intentionally or otherwise, threaten, manipulate, delay, obfuscate or bully in an attempt to get our way. There are also some for whom we have neither the right nor the skills needed to address their shortcomings. Depression, deep phobias, bipolar behaviours, addiction, narcissism, obsessive compulsiveness and other pathologies exist in about 20% of the population. While good communication skills are an asset, so too is professional intervention when required. Your only recourse is to not tolerate bad behaviours and thus strengthen them.

I believe “life is a game” (I wrote a book on that topic 30 years ago) and you need to know how to play yours, not theirs. Mastering tough conversations requires four things. First, understand the perspective of your adversary. Genuine listening transforms the dialogue because it encourages others to listen to you. When that happens, we move from certainty to curiosity and from rigidity to flexibility. This is the precursor to agreement.

Second, openly and honestly express why the issue at hand is important to you. Meaning is never in the sender of the message; that perception belongs solely to the receiver. We all have beliefs and rules that govern our behaviour – what people should and shouldn’t do. Conflict arises when those rules and values collide. Making our principles and priorities explicit encourages others to do likewise.

Third, focus on progress not perfection – try to find a mutually acceptable solution that works for both. And, finally, ask yourself if it’s still worth the effort. Be realistic. Telling someone to change makes it unlikely they will. People rarely change because someone thinks they should and tells them so. (Do you?)

Success is more likely when we can engage others in a genuine dialogue where mutual discovery is the primary objective. People are more likely to change when they feel heard, respected and free not to have to change. Follow the mediator’s dictum: it’s not about a just agreement; it’s just about an agreement. It’s not about who’s right or wrong, or better or worse, it’s about finding a better way to work around our differences. This requires a degree of accommodation, not capitulation. And this principle is the backbone of healthy relationships