The Right Way to Prepare for Difficult Conversations

difficult conversation

No matter how nice you are, no matter how nice the people around you are, there will be times when you need to have a difficult conversation. Occasional tough talks are just a part of life. Maybe you have to talk with your spouse about a concern you have over something in your marriage. Or, maybe one of your children has made some seriously poor choices that need to be addressed. Perhaps there’s a situation at work you’ll need to bring up to your boss or a subordinate. Whatever it is, ignoring it is only going to make things worse.

Some people avoid conflict at all costs, swallowing their frustration. But it only builds up inside, causing resentment that keeps a distance in the relationship. On the other hand, some people are all too ready to jump in on situations and only end up widening the gap by their forcefulness or insensitivity. By taking these 6 “right” steps, it is possible to prepare for a tough conversation that is more likely to resolve things and make your relationship stronger, rather than keep you apart.

1. Find the right issue.

It’s important to get to the root of the matter that’s sparked the need to talk. Anger is often the primary emotion we are aware of, but beneath the surface could be something else—disappointment, fear, loss. Clarifying the focus ahead of time is vital. What’s really the point here—that your son called his sister a rude name or the importance of respecting other people? Do you simply want to give him a list of banned words or a greater appreciation of the need for kindness? If the talk you need to have is with one of your kids, consider these 7 C’s for Communicating with Teens.

2. Find the right time.

When we are irked by a situation, we often want to blurt out something right there and then. But with communication, timing is everything. You might do better to wait until you have calmed down, and there is enough time to really talk. Just the other morning, I was frustrated about something with my wife, Susan, and told her all about it in the moment—even though she was trying to get out of the house on time for an important appointment. As you might suspect, it did not go well. There was another occasion, too, that led to my confession: What I Learned From a Fight With My Wife.

3. Find the right place.

Speaking plainly with someone goes much better when it occurs in a good environment. So ensure that the other person is best positioned to hear what you have to say. Maybe taking your son out for breakfast at a diner will provide just the right amount of privacy while also taking the conversation away from home. Similarly, some couples choose not to bring tough talks into their bedroom because they don’t want it to be a place of tension.

4. Find the right attitude.

Remember that you may not have all the facts. You need to hear other people’s sides before you can really decide who’s at fault. Do you want to find out the whole story, or do you just want to give them a piece of your mind? Having a humble approach communicates that you want to hear from them, not just harangue them. Even if you consider them to be in the wrong, perhaps you can start by admitting any mistakes you have made in the situation. Demonstrating your willingness to listen will encourage them to do the same. Your emotional and physical postures are important in building and maintaining healthy relationships.

5. Find the right words.

In the heat of the battle, we can end up saying things we will regret. Public speakers and salespeople will practice their presentations and pitches to get them just right. You may find it helpful to rehearse what you want to say or even to jot down the main points so you don’t lose track in the heat of the moment. As you prepare, you may want to think about these 5 Powerful Types of Words for Your Marriage. Then, stay on topic and stick to the script.

6. Find the right goal.

What do you want to walk away from the conversation having achieved—winning a fight or winning the relationship? So much of the media these days, from the news to movies, would have you believe that life is all about winners and losers. But there can be a better way. At the end of the day, do you want to be right or do you want to be in right relationship?

There is no guarantee that your tough talk will end well, of course. At the end of the day, you can only be responsible for your side of the conversation. You cannot control another person’s reaction and response. By preparing ahead of time for a tough conversation, it is more likely that barriers will be broken and bridges will be built.

Can you think of a time when a tough talk went poorly because you missed one or more of these steps? What might you have done differently? Which of these steps is the hardest for you to embrace and why?

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