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Difficult Conversations – 10 Ways to Manage Them


Difficult conversations can throw the best of us off kilter when they are sprung upon us. And for those of us who already suffer with anxiety or low self-esteem, they are a recipe for hours spent blaming ourselves for losing our cool, or torturing ourselves with what we should of said instead of what we did say.

While we can’t go back in time and change the difficult conversations we’ve already had, we can learn new ways of doing things for the future. Why not study these ten techniques to managing difficult conversations so that next time you can navigate your way to results you can feel good about.

1. Listen.

When difficult conversations raise a topic we are sensitive about it’s easy to become so focused on defending ourselves we forget to listen. If someone starts up a difficult conversation with you, try to hear them out first without interrupting or talking over them. Really focus on what they are telling you- don’t zone them out so you can strategise in your head. The more you know what you are really dealing with, the more informed your response can be, and the more you might find they are saying things you didn’t expect. Which leads to-

2. Ask, Don’t Assume.

If you are not clear about anything the other person says, don’t make the mistake of assuming you know. It’s amazing how many difficult conversations turn into conflict simply on the basis of small misunderstandings. So ask! A useful tactic can be paraphrasing- repeat back what you think they said and ask if that’s correct. And if you ever feel the other person doesn’t understand you, don’t be afraid to ask them to paraphrase your argument.

3. Be Open.

Often we don’t just assume we know what the other person said, we assume that we know what they think and feel, too. What would the conversation be like if the other person was not someone you knew, but someone you just met? Try to be that open -minded when you are having difficult conversations. It allows the other person a chance to surprise you.

4. And stay open!

Unpleasant feelings like anger or upset can cause many of us to withdraw into defensiveness, refusing to say anything much or pretending we agree when we don’t. Try to state what you really want instead. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but with practise it gets easier and will make all your difficult conversations more productive.

5. Stay in the present.

One of the common ways to try to gain power during difficult conversations is to bring up the past ‘sins of the other party- other difficult conversations you’ve had with them, or things they have done that upset you. This never leads to resolution of the current problem. Stick to the present- and try not to bring other people into it, either.

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6. Cultivate Compassion.

Instead of bringing up the other person’s past demeanours, work to find compassion for them- it isn’t as hard as it sounds. Try to remember something good they did for you, or notice what you have in common with them. Do you both have teenage sons you are struggling with? Both care about the environment? Sometimes even a quick thought of unity can do wonders to change the energy of difficult conversations.

7. Forget about being right.

Compassion also means not winning at another person’s expense, which is what being right tends to be. Instead of aiming to be right, ask, what solution could work for both parties? And if there is something that really will never resolve between you, sometimes you need to just let that go and focus on what you CAN change instead.

Slow down8. Slow Down.

If difficult conversations make you feel lost or out of control, slow down. And why not try the power of silence? Allowing a few word-free moments can do wonders to tone down any conflict that might be rising and can even cause the other person to suddenly change their tone by giving them a chance to think. Why not use those quiet moments to take a deep relaxing breath?

9. Don’t Fan the Flames.

If difficult conversations get heated, make sure it’s not because you are using inflammatory phrases. These inevitably begin with ‘you’. Statements like “you are making too big of a deal out of this” or “you always feel there’s a problem” come across as accusations. Start sentences with ‘I’ instead- “I feel that maybe this is not as big of a deal as it sounds’. ‘I don’t feel there is a problem here’.

10. Acknowledge.

Another way to diffuse tension is to simply acknowledge how they think or feel. “I can see you really care about this issue”. “I can see that you are upset”. Naming what is going on can ground and refocus difficult conversations. Or acknowledge how you feel- “I am honestly not sure how to react when you raise your voice”.

Having a Lot of Difficult Conversations Lately?

If you find that all conversations are becoming difficult conversations for you, take time to look at what is triggering you. What topics are you feeling sensitive about, and what sorts of phrases or questions always set you off? Getting clear on what it is that has you overreacting in difficult conversations will give you a better chance of nipping future reactions in the bud.

But if it’s more than just a bad week where you are feeling sensitive, and you really can’t seem to stop having difficult conversations at every turn, it can sometimes be that you are creating the conflict for yourself and are living in ‘combat mode’. This can happen when something has left us feeling threatened, or like life isn’t as certain as we had hoped. Perhaps someone we love has betrayed us, or we’ve been made redundant at work.

Without meaning to we can start approaching everything and everyone as if they, too, are a threat to our survival, or we can develop a core belief that ‘life is dangerous’. This can then lead to ‘black and white’ thinking, where we are sure things are either going to go right or wrong, good or bad, and we stop allowing for all the possibilities inbetween.

If this sounds like you, you might want to consider therapy, which can be extremely helpful in finding a sense of centre again. And CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) in particular helps with black and white thinking.

Have you experienced difficult conversations lately? What techniques beyond the ten above do you find work for you? Comment below- we love hearing from you.

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Blog Topics: Anger Management, Relationships

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