It seems that "difficult" conversations are par for the course these days. And even the conversation that starts out easy can turn on a dime. We're all a little on guard, a little careful, in our choice of words, timing, and topics we agree to talk about.
A popular download from my website is an article I wrote 15 years ago called "We Have to Talk: A Step-by-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations". The Checklist is popular, and I realize after reading it again that I could have added a few more helpful tips, such as setting up the conversation for success, respecting time, and choosing a supportive location. I hope the following will help you hold a conversation that perhaps you've been putting off in a way that supports all parties.
Setting up for success
Having an opening that shares the purpose for the conversation can help set the stage.
- I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
- I’d like to talk about _______ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.
- I think we have different perceptions about _________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
These openings state your purpose for the conversation, set up a possible mutual purpose, and let your conversation partner know you'd like to hear their thoughts.
Timing is everything
Time is a precious resource. If you have a tendency to put off difficult conversations because you think you don't have the time, that's normal. But also consider that you don't have time not to have the conversation. How much time have you spent worrying, avoiding, not sleeping, or talking to others about a problem they can't solve?
When you do choose to talk, make an agreement about time up front, and be specific. Example: Do you have 10 minutes? I'd like to hear your thoughts on what just happened.
If they say yes, stick to the agreement. If you reach 10 minutes, ask how they feel about continuing, or make a new agreement about when to talk again. This kind of attention to time is a sure sign of respect.
Choosing the Location
Think about a mutually agreeable location. Where will you and your partner feel comfortable talking? Some of my best talks happen walking together or doing an activity together. Tammy Lenski's recent post "Walk it out to work it out" shares the science behind why we might well benefit more from walking than sitting at a conference table or over coffee.
If you do choose to sit over coffee, which is also fine, don't sit across the table if you can help it. Sit next to them or caddy corner. Reinforce as much as possible that you are problem-solving partners in this endeavor. Place the problem on the table and send your ki (energy) toward the solution.
So, read the Checklist, select an opening, and jump in. People often tell me that the conversation turns out to be not as "difficult" as they'd imagined. Be sure to thank your partner for their time and energy, and know that the resolution may take more than one conversation. What's important is to begin.