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8 Steps to Having Challenging Conversations, Courageously

by Sally Forman

Some conversations can be deeply challenging to have, and so we avoid them. We put them off. Sweep them under the carpet. We tell ourselves that we don’t know how. That we’ll make a mess. That it’s not up to us to begin. Yet whenever we let ourselves be distracted from the conversation we need to have, we end up failing in some way. And the thing we fear comes to pass.

Sound familiar? Here are 8 steps that can make it easier to have challenging conversations, courageously.

Step Number 1 - take the initiative

The very first step about these challenging conversations is Have Them. Don't put them off and hope that time will make them easier. Don't hide them under the carpet and pretend they're not needed. Don't wait for the other person to take the initiative. Be courageous. Say "I want to talk to you about XXX. I realise it may not be an easy conversation for either of us, and I'd like to give it a go".

Step Number 2 - keep the relationship in mind just as much as the issue

What's a conversation? The dictionary says a conversation is informal, it's a dialogue. That means two or more people, and going back and forth. It's not a one-sided telling someone else what you think of them or demanding that they listen and then change.

The word conversation is derived from the Latin meaning to turn towards. So a conversation is about all those involved, and it's about the relationship you have together. If you are having a conversation with a waiter about cold food the relationship may not be a priority. If you're having a conversation with your best friend about loss of trust it's vital.

Step Number 3 - the pain of having a difficult or heart sink conversation is less than that of not having it

There are lots of reasons for not having challenging conversations. The most common ones I come across are:
  • not wanting to hurt or upset the other person
  • avoiding conflict because it feels uncomfortable or threatening
  • not knowing how to do it
  • fear of making a bigger mess
In reality these conversations usually go far better than we think they will. And they do take courage - so let's call them courageous conversations.

Step Number 4 - keep the end in mind

Before you begin, consider what you really want from this conversation. It's possible to get hooked by what you want the other person to do. Things like "I want a proper apology" or "I don't want him to raise his voice".

These expectations of the other person may not be met - after all how does the other person know what you mean by a proper apology? And if they are not met then you have lost, or failed. That isn't the intention here. So what's your deeper purpose? To get a particular task done by tonight? To clear the air so you can keep a friendship? To find a way of getting all the household chores done? Keep that in mind and you will have greater chance of success.

Step Number 5 - be responsible for your part

However much we love to assign blame and responsibility to other people there's always something that we've done to create the current situation. In some we may have known that something was wrong and failed to name it. In others we have felt internal discomfort and failed to name it to ourselves, never mind the other person.

So before you begin, have a good look inside you and into the circumstances leading up to the conversation. Where were you not clear? When might you have avoided something? What have you grumbled or gossiped about to others? What might you have assumed, without checking if it's true? What have you been expecting the other person to mind read? Be honest with yourself and then you can be honest with the other person. Accepting responsibility helps the other person to accept their part more easily.

Step Number 6 - go slowly

Take it gently. Fear and anxiety can lead us to plan everything we're going to say. Then we splurge it all out without pausing for breath or for a response. Take it slowly. One idea at a time. Allow time for the other person to think and to respond. Allow yourself time to respond.

Listen to what was actually said, not what you were expecting them to say. Be with the person who is actually here, not who you want them to be or have made up they are. Be flexible. Be gentle on yourself and on the other person.

Step Number 7 - they are doing the best they can

I know that conversations go best when I see the very best side of the other person. When I remember the positive intention behind their behaviour. When I work out what values have been driving their attitudes and their actions.

In addition it's useful to assume that the other person wants to sort the situation out just as much as I do. They may not know how right now. They may be just as anxious, they may have other things on their mind. So, before you begin, and as you go along, think the best.

Step Number 8 - acknowledge and say thank you

However the conversation goes, whatever the outcome, do your best to stay present both physically and emotionally. Right to the end. It will help you, the conversation and the other person. And as you complete this conversation always thank the other person and acknowledge anything that they have done to help it along.

Even if you didn't get the outcome that you wanted. Thank them for telling the truth, even if you found it uncomfortable to hear. Acknowledge them for staying, if they wanted to avoid the conversation or to walk away. And when you are done take a little time to reflect on what happened. Look for all the things that you did that helped the conversation along. Notice anything that you did that got in the way. Avoid beating yourself up for these; simply learn from them for another time.

Remember, Step Number 1 is Have Them. Without you stepping up and taking the initiative there is just the existing muddle and mess. Be one of those who cleans up messes and untangles muddles. Our world needs people who do that.

Article posted on 31 January 2013

Sally Forman is a Registered Psychotherapist, Certified Life Coach and Speaking Circles Facilitator with a private practice in Wellington   » more details