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How to Have Difficult but Effective Conversations

We’ve all had them, those conversations over a misunderstanding or a mistake and it goes haywire. There is no way to successfully get through life without having to have the “talk” with someone whether it be a spouse, child, family member, friend or colleague because things come up that cause chaos, whether it’s a misunderstanding or a crisis. These conversations have to be addressed and resolved. Unfortunately, the ability to have a difficult conversation is a learned ability not one we are naturally born with. Here are some steps to help you manage your next difficult conversation.

To achieve an effective conversation, it requires the ability to speak truthfully while maintaining a bond with the other person. In other words, we don’t want to alienate the other person in the conversation. The only reason we have these conversations is because we do care about each other or they wouldn’t be necessary.

At the beginning of the conversation, let the person know that this is an important conversation and you are having this talk because you care. The goal of the conversation is to solve a problem - Not to win them over or punish them.

Next it is time to state the problem. This needs to be done in a clear and concise manner so that it is understandable. Check in with the other person to make sure they understand because you might need to add examples to help jog their memory.

Take responsibility for your part. We have to own our own part we played in contributing to the situation. It might be 10% to their 90% but we aren’t perfect and often play a part in the situation. It is not only the right thing to do but it also helps the other person from feeling like you are accusing them or treating them like a child which turns on people’s defenses and blocks further communication. If you fail to own your part, you will not be able to take the conversation in a positive direction.

Listen to their side. Often problems arise due to miscommunication or the other person interpreted events differently. Rarely are we in relationship with people who are out to get us, so they probably didn’t mean to hurt you. Therefore, we need to listen to their version of what happened. But don’t let them sidetrack the conversation into endless diversions to another topic or justify their way out of responsibility. This will require you to be warm but directive to bring the topic back to the topic at hand.

Ask for a specific change. People need to have direction instead of just a call for change. Have practical suggestions ready. It is easier to have someone say, “Could you spend $50 less on going out to eat this month?” Instead of “Get your act together.”

Implement consequences if necessary. Sometimes a good conversation is all that is needed to rectify the problem. But sometimes after a few failed conversations, implementing healthy boundaries is necessary.

Reassure them about how much you care. End the conversation with how much you care about them and that you truly want what is best for them. They might need to be comforted which is part of repairing the relationship. It does not mean that the comfort is to erase the conversation but to give them a boost to be able to effectively change the problem.

Check in with them. After the conversation, they will need time to think about what you have told them. In about 2-24 hours, they will have formulated their own thoughts about it so check back in with them. Sometimes they will feel hurt or misunderstood which when left without a follow up could hurt the progress you have made. When you check back in, clarify that you really care, and you want things to work out.

These steps work to have successful conversations. Since they are learned skills, it is hard to implement them without help and guidance. If you feel that you need some help resolving conflicts, please give us a call.


Registered Psychotherapist

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