Making difficult conversations feel better and work better.

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

(How to move from avoidance to engagement)

How much do you despise conflict?

I mean, what lengths are you willing to go to to avoid it?

I did a little Google search when I was thinking about writing this post, and I was honestly surprised by the data behind this phenomenon of conflict-avoidance.

I knew it was a thing ... but would you rather leave your job than tell your boss you're unhappy with the way they're managing? Would you rather fire your employee than have a conversation about why they are late every second day? Would you rather put on a smile and retreat to the kitchen to baste the turkey than engage in one more discussion with your Father-in-Law about your choice of schools for your children? Do you make sure your friend's wife is out whenever you visit him, because of that thing she said to you that time?

If you resonated with any of the above scenarios, you are definitely not alone.

Most people would do almost anything to avoid having these difficult conversations.

And I guess, when I think about it, my own anecdotal evidence lines up with this. When I tell people what I do, I often hear comments about how they feel uncertain, anxious and awkward when they're faced with strong disagreements and strong personalities.

Of course, this is really why I have a job at all. Because there are difficult conversations to be had -- and most of us have no idea where to start.

At school we learned maths, but not mediation. And at home, our parents may have separated, rather than sort things out. In the workplace, most managers don't feel that they're equipped to deal with conflict (in one study, 58% of managers said that they didn't receive any management training), and conflict-avoidance is often a common thread in interpersonal relationships as well.

There is a good chance that most of us are getting through life as best we can with a model of conflict management that is based on self-preservation and protection, because that is what trial and error has taught us.

Anyway, it's fun to philosophise about why we do what we do, but does it give us a way out, or an alternative, when we're in the middle of a relationship-testing, boundary-pushing pickle?

Help, Shona! I can't avoid it any longer -- how can I make this interaction bearable? I'm going to have to see this person every day at work, or every weekend at handover ... how can I tell them how I really feel and then also face them again afterwards?

It's okay! I'm going to help you out with seven things you can do straight away (right now, while you're reading this!) to make that difficult conversation feel better and work better.

Prepare practically.

1. Write yourself some notes. Whether it's a reminder on your phone or an old school shopping list pad with a magnet on the back 🙃 grab something to write on and make notes that will keep you on track when your nerves threaten to take over.

2. Get detailed. I'm not talking about who did what, on what date, with how many witnesses! I'm talking about being able to explain:

  • why you need to have the conversation,

  • what you want to achieve,

  • what boundaries you intend to set, and

  • what exactly you are requesting of the other person in hope of a resolution.

It is so helpful if you can talk about your motives, feelings, options, boundaries, requests and outcomes in a detailed way.

For example, you could start out with your motives by saying: "I really want the children to be able to enjoy their visit with you and I would love to start it off on the right foot."

And you can talk about your feelings like this: "I feel anxious when I don't know what time you're coming to pick up the children."

[Click here to grab your fillable PDF containing the full list of examples and much more!]

3. Make arrangements to have your discussion at a suitable time and place. If you try to just "wait for the right time", you might find it all bubbling to the surface at the worst time. Ensure that your children aren't present, and try to pick a time when you are both more likely to be in a relaxed frame of mind (as much as possible!).

Prepare mentally.

4. Really take note of what is happening in your head when you think about the situation. If you have been in the middle of it for a long time, it can be good to have an expert help you explore both "sides" of the situation. Here are a few questions to get you started:

What are you thinking about the other person?

What assumptions are you making about the situation?

What are you thinking about their motives?

What other explanations could there be for their actions?

Are there solutions that you may not have considered?

What are the most important values to the other person?

What do you want this relationship to be like after this conversation?

[Click here to grab your fillable PDF containing the full list of questions for mental prep - and much more!]

Execute gently.

5. Go softly. Listen carefully, acknowledge feelings, ask curious questions, be patient, practice empathy. I could spend days talking about each of these things, but when it comes down to it - walk in their shoes for a minute, and if they are willing, help them to walk in yours.

6. Take your time. Be patient (did I say that already? 😉). Accept than all the answers may not come immediately, and you might both need thinking and processing time. Make sure that you allow the time and space to keep the children central to the conversation, without rushing to be the first to get all your opinions out.

7. Ask for grace + extend grace. It takes a great deal of strength (and preparation) to see the situation from all angles, and to acknowledge that there is repair to be made on both sides. Ask for grace in the areas where you can see you have gone wrong, and extend grace where that is needed.

When your lives are tied together, any forward progress you make will be because you are moving in the same direction.

So that's it - I hope these tips have been helpful for you, and you're feeling a lot more like you can approach that conversation with grace and confidence! xx

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