"Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values" - Douglas Stone
We might try to avoid having difficult conversations but it's a skill we all need to master. If not master, at least get better at it.
You may need to have a conversation with a colleague about not delivering or performing. You may be the bearer of bad news to powers higher up in the organisation. It may also be personal - it may be a conversation with a friend that needs to happen.
And the conversation may be someone else's agenda for you and you may not be prepared for it. That said, there are usually signs that augur the oncoming conversation. Phrases like "We need to talk" or "Can we find an office to chat?" all suggest something on the horizon that needs a safe space.
Difficult conversations trip us up in several ways. In the heat of the moment, none of this is apparent to us, but reflect on your last challenging conversation and I bet you will notice some of this behaviour.
1. We get hooked. We take something in the conversation personally and we are triggered. If we have the capacity to notice our physical form, the signs will be there in our body such as raised heart rate, clenching hands, and gritted jaw. Once we are hooked, we loose hold of the context and reason for the conversation.
2. We go all Rocky Balboa or we shut down. We are programmed not to be surprised. It's a deeply embedded survival instinct that protected us from the wooly Mammoth. Once we get hooked, our survival instinct kicks in. Depending on who you are, the response will be one of fight, flight or freeze. And we then resort to behaviours such as rolling our eyes, criticising, or defensiveness. These are all instinctive ways of protecting ourselves and none of it helpful in a conversation with another human being.
3. Our assumptions rule us blindly. We assume we understand the intentions of the person in front of us. We interpret their response through a lens of our own experience. But that's the catch. The lens of our experience and perspective is ours alone. We cannot know for sure what the person is thinking or feeling about the conversation.
4. We forget what matters to us in the conversation. Once caught up in the survival response, we loose perspective on why we are having the conversation. Getting out safely or defending our position becomes our priority.
So how do we navigate difficult conversations?
1. Remember the context. What is the purpose of the conversation? What is it you want to convey? What matters to you? This awareness can define the framework for the conversation. Like lines on a football field, you can choose to keep the conversation within bounds, and avoid being taken off the pitch unintentionally.
2. Be aware of your assumptions. What assumptions do you have about this person? What might trigger you in this conversation? I've had clients tell me that they have no assumptions about a person. The truth is that is highly unlikely. Ask yourself: "What is getting in the way of a better relationship with this person?". The answers may be that you think they are distant, too busy, smarter than you, or even they don't value your opinion. These could be true and they could not be. You could name the assumptions to clear the air or just be aware that they strongly influence how you show up in a conversation.
3. Find what you do agree on. Where is the common ground? Even if the area of alignment is that you cannot agree, look for the common ground. When things get tough, we make being right more important than anything else. Intentionally looking for the areas where you can agree.
4. Stay curious. Keep asking questions, and reflecting back what you hear. This technique is a great way to keep you present in the conversation. Reframing what you think you heard and reflecting back on what you are seeing in the person is good way to avoid misunderstandings. It also ensures the other person feels heard.
The objective of working on your ability to have difficult conversations is to grow the muscle of recovery. We will continue to be triggered by others but the area of growth is learning to reduce the time to recover.