Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to have difficult conversations

We tend to make either of two mistakes when presented with difficult conversations. One, says Sheryl Hansen, an organization development services consultant with NAIT, is to give into emotion – anger, often – and respond in the moment. The other is to give into fear and avoid the matter, allowing it to grow thornier and harder to approach.

The best approach, says Hansen, who teaches communications skills to institute staff, “is somewhere in between.”

While respect and empathy form the foundation of effective communication – at home, work or elsewhere – conversations need structure if they’re to support our goals, or if they are to serve as safe spaces where we can address concerns with others.

Here, Hansen explains how to find that middle ground, and transform “we need to talk” from fightin’ words into opportunities for growth in our relationships.

What’s your intention?

“State your intention, or state what it isn’t,” says Hansen. After you’ve thought about what you want to talk about and why, clearly explain that. But that’s not actually the launch point for your conversation. The other party needs to agree to participate.

For example: your boss drops by and says, “There’s something I want to talk to you about. Come by my office.”

“Who has the power there?” asks Hansen. “There’s no choice for the employee,” who has to accept the time and the place, let alone the surprise topic. Ideally, both parties should agree to a time to discuss a clearly defined issue. “Give people time and space to think,” says Hansen.

Let’s talk about our feelings

Stick to the facts. Describe emotional reactions to specific events, but avoid the blame implied in statements like, “When you do this, you make me feel horrible,” says Hansen.

“The choice of words is really important,” she adds. Generalizations – you never, you always, I can’t and so on – are not facts. Limit statements to what you know.  “The important part of any communication is saying what you think, say, feel, do – not what the other person says, thinks, feels and does.”

Stop talking

When you explain your intentions before a conversation, include an ideal outcome, or, as Hansen, puts it, the impact you hope the talk will have. This doesn’t have to mean a definitive conclusion. “By the end, we might have an agreement on the next step,” says Hansen.

For example, she adds, if you’re discussing the tough subject of finances with your partner, the conversation may not end with a budget, but an agreement to see a financial adviser – essentially picking up the topic later. Alternatively, prevent fatigue by setting a time limit, half an hour or so, with a commitment to return to the issue.

“It’s about biting off small pieces,” says Hansen.

Face the facts

“If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying out loud,” says Hansen. Never attempt a difficult conversation by email or text message. Without the nuance of in-person communication, tone and meaning are vulnerable to misinterpretation, or the message may seem to lack importance.

What’s more, adds Hansen, turning to digital media is a kind of avoidance, which is product of discomfort with addressing the issue. “But discomfort is about not having the skills to do that,” she says. 


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