3 Key Elements For Handling Difficult Conversations Like A Grown-Up

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3 Key Elements for Handling Difficult Conversations

Imagine a stool. It has three legs that hold up the seat. Without one of the legs, the stool becomes unstable and won't stand on its own.

When thinking about True, Kind, and Necessary (TKN) in respect to conversations, it's important to remember that you need all three aspects of TNK to have your most successful conversations.

In happy conversations where we all agree with each other, we don't have to think about these qualities because we are having fun. TKN comes naturally. No one feels like their point of view is being threatened or their sense of self is compromised; it is easy to get along, have fun, develop plans, and feel heard.

When we are having difficult conversations or a discussion is contentious, it can get sticky fast. The floor upon which the stool stands is an idea of intent versus impact. Intent and impact are essential to pay attention to because when conversations fly off the rails, they usually start with a good intention.

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Often, we bring judgment, ego, and opinions into the arena and while we may have started off with a positive intent, we can end up having a very negative impact.

As soon as our brain sends out the signals that it feels threatened, angry, or upset, we are on guard. In fact, we may create more unintentional damage as each side take offense and digs their heels in. 

With this in mind, let's look at the 3 key elements on how to have difficult conversations for better results:

1. Be true.

Obviously, we want to be honest in our handling of information and give honest reflection to people. It also helps to truthfully communicate our feeling and experience without telling others how they feel, what their intent was, or judging their behavior as the issue.

Ask yourself some questions: Am I making an assumption? Do I have enough information or are there other questions I need to ask for clarification? Am I exaggerating or escalating the truth? Am I taking on the victim role? Is my anger making me sound harsher than I intended?

We can rapidly set people up to feel attacked and that either tunes them out or engages them in an argument. If I am telling you the truth, from my perspective and I am unkind in my delivery or it's not my place to share, I run the very real risk of it landing poorly on you and fueling a bigger fight.

2. Be kind.

This is the level of how we approach a conversation with compassion and gentleness. We might be sharing our truth without thought to other people's feelings.

In conversations that we have with others, we can inadvertently hurt people's feelings, sound judgmental, and seem like we are telling them what to do. Again, consider intent versus impact. This is especially true in the texting, typing, and Instant Messaging mediums.

People can't read your non-verbal body language. We may not even know each other well and so we end responding to things based on how we feel the message is coming at us. If it's a difficult situation, people may already be defensive. Kindness is about intention.

We can decide if we intend to be useful or scolding, helpful or hurtful. If we want to be supportive and our message still lands poorly, apologizing for the unintended outcome is kindness also.

3. Speak only when necessary.

Why are we invested in sharing our perspective? What's our goal for the conversation? Have we been asked for feedback? Or, are we trying to 'teach' someone something we think they need to know? Is what you're about to say for the greater good of the person you are speaking/writing to?

I also like to ask myself, "Is what I am about to say, think or do, going to take me one step closer to my goal or one step further away?" Which, of course, begs the question, "What is my goal in this conversation?"

I remember a situation with a roommate in college. We were in classes together in the same department and she was flirting with a married professor and he was flirting back. Their behavior went against my value system of integrity; I have strong feelings about infidelity and commitment.

One day this professor was at our house. In the middle of some conversation, I asked him what his wife would think of his being at our home and his flirting with my friend. My concern might have been valid, even necessary, but my delivery was judgmental and unkind and it landed very poorly.

I had already shared my feelings with her. Now, I was jumping into her life choices and unnecessarily forcing my opinions on them both. She felt judged and shamed. It took a long time to heal that wound with my friend.

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There are times that we do need to speak up with our truth. It's important to speak up when we see someone being abused or misused. When we have a way to help someone be more efficient, save time, or avoid heartache, we probably should.

Maybe we are setting a healthy boundary on how others speak to us or treat us. Or perhaps we are sharing what we are or are not willing to do for someone else and where we have drawn our line in the sand.

Typically, the more necessary the conversation is, the more painful it runs the risk of being. This is why adding the elements of True, Kind, and Necessary can help the conversation go better for all parties.

We also need to be able to walk away and let go of our prescribed ending. Allow others to make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons. It's typically not our job to police other people's behaviors; it's our job to police our own.

In any vital communication, there is another area to consider. Let's call timing the seat of the stool and it’s used to increase stability and hopefully lead to a more positive outcome.

Are you calling someone out in public or in private? Are you unintentionally shaming or manipulating them? Are you giving them time to respond or pushing for an instant response? Are you demanding an answer, or pushing for agreement? Can you have a face-to-face conversation, even if we are talking on Facetime or Zoom versus having an email argument or texting war?

Have you been obsessing over a situation for hours rationalizing why you feel the way you do, decided on your position? Did you blindsided the other person with your concerns and then unrealistically expected the conversation to have a positive response?

We gave ourselves the luxury of time to process and then we dumped our perspective on someone who hasn't had that same luxury of time and expected a comprehensive and non-defensive answer. Is this fair fighting? Is this how we want to be treated? 

Giving ourselves time to cool down before responding is helpful, give the other person time to process is essential.

There are truly very few things — short of life and death situations — which must be instantly resolved. Forcefully pulling someone out from in front of a moving car by jerking them hard will normally be seen as helpful.

Forcefully demanding a conversation or shaming someone in a public forum will not be seen in the same light. I often feel like it's a manipulation — mostly unconscious — when we press others to do something so that we can feel better. 

When we get fired up about something, our brains flood with adrenaline and cortisol and this increases our reactivity and decreases our ability to think through a situation. Everyone's brain can get similarly "hijacked".

Have you ever had an intense conversation and then later thought of all the things you wished you had said instead? If I give myself an hour or a day before responding, then I have time to engage my frontal cortex, my thinking brain, and I may come up with a much better response to the situation.

Giving myself time to get curious about what is going on for the other person, instead of assuming I know the whole story, gives me some access to the bigger picture even to the point of considering how physical needs may have played a role.

Think about your own timing needs. Consider if you are hungry, tired, overwhelmed, stressed out, or not feeling well. All these factors affect how you show up in any conversation, let alone the hard conversations.

Imagine the other person. What if they are hungry, tired, stressed out or not feeling well too? Might the conversation go better after a meal or at another time?

Timing could be the difference between a positive outcome to a tough situation instead of it exploding into something quite dramatic. Without considering our timing, we can do some genuine damage to trust, not just our trust in them, but equally important, their trust in us.

Using these tools will not guarantee a 100 percent positive outcome in every situation. But by considering True, Kind, and Necessary in your communications, your odds for a better conversation are significantly increased.

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Lyssa Danehy deHart, LICSW, PCC Professional Coach, and the Author of StoryJacking: Change Your Inner Dialogue, Transform Your Life) helps people challenge their limiting stories and create an authentic and empowered life. Learn more about Lyssa or schedule a complimentary introductory session and discover if Lyssa’s work resonates with who you want to be and how you want to show up in the world.