Two weeks ago, we talked about mastering difficult conversations. To summarize, we said the ability to navigate difficult conversations starts with you. You must become aware of your reactions, be accountable for your own actions/words, and stick to your goal for the conversation. These help to ensure a favorable outcome. (If you missed it, we recommend you go back and read it before continuing).
So now that you are better prepared for the conversation, how do you handle interactions with others who aren’t? How do you have a positive outcome if the other person is reacting poorly?
It may seem impossible, but it’s not. With a little time and practice, you can build the skills to have these conversations with ease. Here are some practical steps on how to do that.
# 1 Learn to identify the tactics
In the last blog, I talked about recognizing which tactic you use in difficult conversations. Remember silence or violence? Now that you are versed in recognizing the signs, you can identify them in other people as well. This step is important because it can help you stick to your goal and recognize when safety is at risk (see #3).
# 2 Don’t get sucked into an emotional reaction
During this process, it’s important to remember what you really want. That means you must avoid the impulse to lash out in response to the tactic the other person is using. Yes, this means you must be the bigger person.
# 3 Determine if safety is at risk
Safety exists in conversation when people can express how they feel and what they think without judgment. When safety is at risk, people are more likely to react emotionally with anger, sarcasm, defensiveness, etc. Here’s what makes conversations unsafe:
# 4 Step out and assess
Before you can proceed with a conversation, you need to make it safe. Ask yourself which of the conditions you violated to make the conversation unsafe. Do you have an attitude of disrespect towards this person? Is what you said disrespectful? Are you working towards the same goal as this person?
# 5 Find a way to respect the person
When you don’t respect someone, they can usually perceive it in your attitude. They also know when you’re faking. Thus, you must find a way to genuinely respect the person before proceeding with the conversation, even if you don’t respect their behavior. Everyone has redeeming qualities, so look for them in the other person. For some, it’s helpful to see the other person as simply a human being, with strengths and weaknesses, just like yourself. Remembering your own areas of weakness can help soften your view of the other person.
# 6 Make it safe
There are three ways to make a conversation safe: apologize, contrast, and find a mutual purpose.
Apologize. When you’re wrong, admit it. I can personally attest that this method works. In a heated discussion with a friend, she angrily pointed out that I had disrespected her. It was a very emotionally charged conversation and I didn’t want to admit that she was right. Then, I remembered my end goal was a better relationship with her. So, I swallowed my pride and said. “You’re right. That was wrong of me, I’m sorry.” Boy, did that change the entire dynamic of the conversation! She softened and we were able to continue our conversation.
Contrast. When people doubt your intent or think you are accusing them, it’s helpful to use a contrasting statement. I used this with my friend as well. I said, “ I don’t want you to feel judged or that I’m looking down on you. I do want you to know that what I’m saying comes from a place of love and concern for your well-being.” She was receptive to this delivery because she believed I had her best interests at heart.
When you contrast, start with what you DON’T want and emphasize what you DO want. Try it!
I DON’T __________________________________________
I DO ______________________________________________
Find a Mutual Purpose. The authors of Crucial Conversations offer a simple acronym to remember how to find a mutual purpose: CRIB.
# 7 Practice & Patience
Engaging in emotionally charged conversations is no easy feat, which is why practice is important. You may do well in one conversation and fail miserably in the next. I read the book Crucial Conversations a few years ago and I had forgotten to utilize the tools I learned. I only remembered the book after a particularly terrible conversation with someone I loved. I tell you this to encourage you so you can cut yourself some slack. You may mess up sometimes like I have, but just keep trying!
It will take time and effort to really master the skills, but it will lead to more productive dialogue when it matters most. It’s worth the time and effort. Good luck!
Patterson, Kelly, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When the Stakes Are High. Second Edition. McGraw Hill, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Ehimetalor Unuabona via Unsplash