How to Have Difficult Conversations and Keep Your Cool

Female friends having a difficult conversation

Conflict and disagreement are bound to arise in any relationship. But very few of us know how to have difficult conversations in a tactful way. Anxiety, frustration, and anger can hijack your brain. And, this can prevent crucial discussions from reaching productive resolutions.

Healthy relationships of any kind need open communication to prevent a build-up of negative sentiment. For starters, there are a few common conflict resolution mistakes you’ll want to avoid. Moreover, you can adopt a few simple best practices for having tough conversations. You’ll be surprised at how much better your concerns are received. 

Common Mistakes in Conflict Resolution   

Have you ever tried and failed to resolve a problem with a co-worker or family member? Here are some common reasons why difficult conversations don’t go well. 

  • You didn’t take the time to prepare for the conversation. 
  • You ignored what the other person had to say about the issue. 
  • You didn’t have a realistic solution in mind to move forward from the conflict. 

There are research-based approaches you can use to diffuse explosive emotions in high-stakes conversations. 

So next time you’re anxious about how to have a difficult conversation, try following these 3 easy steps. 

How to Have Difficult Conversations in 3 Easy Steps 

1. Preparing for the conversation.  

Before determining how to start a difficult conversation, there are a few things that need to happen. First, make sure you have all the facts. This prevents it from turning into an argument about what happened so you can spend more time solving the problem.  

Next, consider how the problem made you feel. Process your negative feelings by putting some time between yourself and the conflict. Meditation can help soothe lingering agitation. Be sure you are prepared to come into the conversation with neutral energy. 

Finally, go into the conversation with an open mind. It’s possible that the other person will need time and space before agreeing to a specific solution.

2. Creating a safe space. 

Once you’re ready to start a difficult conversation, it’s important to maintain a neutral tone and prioritize emotional safety. When people storm off or have emotional outbursts, it’s because they sense danger and go into fight or flight mode. 

To prevent this, make the other person feel that they’re in a safe environment. You can do this by using author Stephen Covey’s AMPP method from the book Crucial Conversations

  • Ask the other person to tell their side of the story. 
  • Mirror their feelings to show empathy. For example, “You seem uncomfortable, you look unsure, you seem upset.”
  • Paraphrase what they have to say, whether you agree with it or not. Remember, you aren’t there to argue about what happened. The goal is problem-solving the situation. For example: “So what you’re saying is…” 
  • Prime the conversation if you’re not getting anywhere. Name what you sense the other person is thinking. For example, “It must seem like I’m being unfair.” 

3. State the Facts and Propose a Solution 

Once the other person feels open to talking, it’s time to name the problem. Share your side of the story, explain how the issue affected you, and explore a solution. 

If the other person wants to contest anything you have to say, listen. Understanding them is more important than being right. Let them tell their story, and then steer the conversation back to a possible solution. 

End the conversation on a positive note by thanking the other person for hearing you out and sharing their side of the story. If you didn’t reach a resolution right then, it’s okay. You can come back to the conversation at a later time. The important thing is that you heard each other out. 

Managing hard conversations doesn’t have to create more conflict in your relationships. Ideally, you’ll practice how to have difficult conversations a few times and learn to leverage conflict as a way to grow.  

There are many ways to improve your communication skills. Whether you’re struggling to get on the same page with a significant other or an employee, you can always benefit from more practice. Following these research-based steps is a good way to start reducing conflict and facilitate growth in your relationships. 

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