How to Have the Important Conversations You Would Like to Avoid, by E. Whitmore

How to Have the Conversations You Are Avoiding

There are conversations we all wish we didn’t have to have. You think your boss gives all the best assignments to your colleague. Your roommate doesn’t clean up after herself. You and your brother can’t agree how to share the family cottage you both inherited.

These are issues we don’t want to discuss, so often we don’t. While we can choose to avoid the conversation, we don’t let the issue go. Instead we fume about the unfair assignments, unwashed dishes and our unreasonable brother. We avoid these topics because we know they will be difficult and we fear that talking about them will only make things worse.

So while having these conversations could make matters worse, avoiding them doesn’t work either. The only solution is to develop the communication skills we need to discuss these difficult issues effectively.

Conversations can become difficult when:

  • there are different opinions as to the facts;
  • the issues are important to us;
  • emotions run high; or
  • the impact on us or the other person is too personal.

So, to discuss difficult issues effectively, we need to:

  • distinguish facts from conclusions;
  • recognize we may not have the full picture (the other person may know things we don’t);
  • define our goals;
  • look at how the situation developed and how it could be changed rather than who is at fault;
  • recognize when a conversation may impact on our sense of self or that of the other person.
  • recognize that emotions are an important part of these conversations and learn how to handle them;
  • focus on developing mutual understanding rather than being “right”; and
  • spend as much time listening as we would like to spend talking.

When you prepare for a difficult conversation or find yourself in the midst of one, make sure you separate facts from conclusions. For example, your assistant may have been late for work three days in a row. This strikes you as a sign he lacks commitment and is unprofessional, but to start the conversation there would be a mistake.

The fact is that he was late for work on three consecutive days. Your view that this is unprofessional is a conclusion you have drawn based on your interpretation of the facts. If you say he is unprofessional, he will likely argue with you. He is no longer listening because he is too busy defending himself. The problem is that the conversation is taking place at the level of conclusions.

It may be that your assistant defines professionalism differently from you or there may be other facts you didn’t know about. Maybe he worked through his lunches last week to help you meet a deadline and thought he was entitled to some lieu time. Maybe he has stayed late at your request and so thought there was some “flexibility” around his hours. Ask yourself: “What reasons might a reasonable, professional and committed person have for coming in late three days in a row?” Be open to the possibility that your original conclusions may not be accurate.

You are entitled to your views and, given that you are upset about the situation, you need to talk with your assistant. It may be helpful, however, to frame the conversation differently. Separate the facts from your conclusions. Begin with your understanding of the facts. Let him know that you have concerns but that you are open to hearing other relevant information or interpretations from him.

When preparing for a difficult conversation, define your goals, but not too narrowly. Think about your goals for the relationship as a whole as well as your goals for the particular conversation. It may seem the goal is to get your assistant to arrive on time but the larger goal is to have a respectful, professional relationship with your assistant which allows you to work together efficiently and effectively. Therefore, the goal for the specific conversation may be to: raise your concerns; identify the impact on you when he is late; ask why he was late; and work with him to develop a plan for going forward that meets your needs.

Rather than looking to find fault, you should ask yourself how the situation developed, including how you may have contributed. The goal is not to assign blame (to you or to him) but to improve the situation. To improve a situation, it is important to look for any factors that may have contributed to the problem. Maybe you work flexible hours, so your assistant thought that he could. Maybe you asked him to stay late a few times so he thought it was okay to arrive late a few times. Maybe your only contribution is that you did not speak up the first time he was late so he didn’t know how important timeliness was to you.

Conversations can also become difficult when people take issues too personally. For example, when meeting with a colleague to provide feedback on a report she wrote you mention that the report “lacks focus” and she appears unduly upset. You are commenting only on her report, but she is hearing an attack on her identity as a competent and conscientious person. If she reacts badly it may assault your sense of yourself as someone who is skilled at providing insightful and supportive feedback. Suddenly a conversation about a report has raised deep issues for both of you.

When you recognize that a conversation might trigger identity issues, you can think about how to deal with them effectively. You can start the conversation by praising your colleague’s strong research and writing abilities and clarifying that your comments relate only to this one report. On the flip side, if you are involved in a conversation and become aware that it is triggering certain identity issues, you can step back to consider whether you are taking it too much to heart.

Conversations can become difficult when emotions run high. When this happens, people often try to ignore the emotions and focus on the “facts”. This can be a mistake. Because it takes a lot of energy to hide our emotions, people can’t listen or respond as effectively when they are upset. How you deal with your emotional response will depend on your personal style and the circumstances. You may want to take a break from the conversation; you may want to name the emotion (“I’m sorry but I’m feeling really frustrated right now, can we continue this tomorrow?”). If it is the other person who is getting emotional, your response depends in part on your relationship with them. If your boss is clearly angry about something, you can suggest postponing the meeting to another day. If it is a friend or a close colleague, you can ask what impact the conversation is having on them and acknowledge their feelings.

In a tough conversation, one of the best things you can do is listen. Listening effectively is not a passive activity. Instead, it involves asking open-ended questions, summarizing what you have heard to check your understanding, and acknowledging feelings. Listening allows you to learn how the other person sees the situation and can help you to understand how best to respond. Listening also demonstrates respect. If you listen to them, it will be harder for them not to listen to you.

Learning to discuss difficult issues effectively takes time and practice but it is worth the effort.

Elinor Whitmore is a facilitator, mediator, and personal coach with the Stitt Feld Handy Group –

About Stitt Feld Handy Group

The members of the Stitt Feld Handy Group teach, practise, conduct research, and publish in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Negotiation. The Group also provides consultation advice for the design and implementation of ADR and conflict-management systems.