Do you know how to speak in a way that will get someone to listen during a difficult conversation?

Being an effective communicator can be difficult during a tense conversation or conflict. Getting heard and truly hearing each other is hard to do when your mind and body is preoccupied with all the emotions that are vying for your brain’s attention. They can run the gambit, from fear to shame, from anger to confusion. They don’t call it a ‘difficult’ conversation for nothing.

Like most things in life, however, these types of conversations are unavoidable and downright necessary in most instances. When we are having a difficult or tense conversation, or when you have to impart some bad news, your defenses will more than likely be up, and when you are talking to someone else while feeling defensive, you are likely to trigger their defenses. Defensiveness brings out defensiveness! It’s in our Nature. This is why it is so important to be mindful when you are going into a conversation that you suspect will be tense.

One of the hardest skills, to learn, implement and, frankly, get used too as a boss is having those hard conversations that we all must have as business owners and leaders. This can be especially difficult if you run a small business. Small businesses tend to have more of a community atmosphere, and the people often do things together socially outside of the office, which adds in a more personal element and implication for a frank conversation. However, if an issue is left unaddressed, it only festers and grows into a bigger problem with bigger ramifications. This can also be true for large corporations as well, but there is usually a clear hierarchy and well-established systems in place for addressing concerns.

Whether we are aware of it or not, every conversation has the ability to escalate. There are so many factors that play into being a whole person. Our history with each other, my mood that day, their mood, where you are, the topic, what is happening in our home or social lives and on and on.

Our subconscious is doing calculations behind the scenes over 90% of the time and many of the assumptions our subconscious is operating from are wrong. Unaddressed assumptions are a conflict waiting to happen.

When it comes to a conflict there are 4 things that are happening; there is an assumption, a judgment, an expectation and an emotion. More to the point; we assume something, we have a belief or judgment about what that ‘something’ means, we have an expectation of what will or should happen, and we always have a feeling associated with our perception of what is going on.

Our innateness play’s a part too. A caveat here, boxes and labels are only good if they are serving you, not minimizing, dismissing or excusing the behavior. If I am a shy introverted person and we are talking about a subject that I consider touchy or private, I am going to feel exposed. As for the extrovert and team-centric, if you pull me into your office, I might feel like I am being taken to the principal’s office. Both scenarios trigger a defensive stance.

What do you do with all these factors that play into two people trying to communicate effectively in a difficult conversation? Here are some tips that will get you started;

  1. Get permission – check in with them, ask them. Say “I have something that i would like to talk with you about around topic x would that be okay?”
  2. Do some pre-framing – don’t bury the lead. If it is going to be a hard conversation tell them, “this is hard for me to talk about, I’m not sure how you feel about x topic, but here is how I see it (feel about it or the action you want)”. Remember not to tell anyone else how to feel, that is theirs and theirs alone. Just like no one can tell you how you feel about something.
  3. Get curious – ask questions, make sure that you understand, dive deeper. The author Susan Scott in her book ‘Fierce Conversation’, tells us “when someone says ‘I don’t know’, ask ‘what would you say if you did know?’, and then they will answer.”
  4. Be quiet and be patient. Leave room for the other person to process what you have said, and listen. Don’t fill the air with word soup and muddy the waters.
  5. Clarify & Verify. I love this, ever since my friend Pam introduced me to the practice. You can clarify what you heard by asking a simple question “okay here is what I am hearing you say (or are wanting from me)”, and Verify by asking “do I have that right?”  It goes a long way to avoiding misunderstandings and defining expectations.

I understand difficult conversations are hard. I mean they don’t call them difficult for nothing, and you can do it! Every time you have one with an open and honest heart, it gets easier and easier. Trust me.

What tip will you use in that difficult conversation you have been putting off?


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