What makes difficult conversations so difficult? People are often afraid to talk about tough topics when they aren’t certain of the outcome. Sometimes they complain that they don’t even know how to begin, so they avoid it altogether. Or if they have tried to hold a hard conversation and it didn’t go well, they are reluctant to try again. This fear can be a powerful factor in preventing us from holding a necessary conversation, or at the very least, it limits us in how we broach the subject, keeping us from being effective. 

We often refer to these less-than-successful attempts at holding a difficult conversation as fake talk. Why? Fake talk is often vague, misleading, indirect, or a misrepresentation of the real message. Consequently, conversations that encompass fake talk do not achieve the desired results. Think about how many conversations you have held thinking you have addressed a particular challenge, and yet, nothing changes. 

On the other hand, REAL conversations create respect, build relationships, and achieve results. People come away feeling like they have been understood, and they are clear about what they need to do next. These conversations take place in an atmosphere of dignity and respect. 

Here are 12 tips that will help you successfully talk about difficult topics.

  1. Prepare or beware. If you take a few minutes to think about the conversation that you need to hold, you increase the likelihood that the conversation will be more effective. Ask yourself the following questions to help you prepare: “What is the topic at hand?” “How might this person react to the topic?” “How does this person usually respond to feedback of any kind?” “What is the quality of my relationship with this person?” “What history from the past might impact this interaction?” Asking yourself these reflective questions will allow you to anticipate and prepare for the other person’s reaction. 
  2. Check your assumptions. What we think about others gives rise to what we feel. Our feelings then fuel our actions–what we say and do. If you take a minute to ask yourself, “What am I thinking and feeling about this person in this situation?” you will surface your assumptions and feelings. If your feelings and thinking are negative or emotionally charged, then it would be better to wait to hold the conversation until you can work through your feelings and approach the situation more objectively. Otherwise, your assumptions and emotions will color the delivery of your message and will likely negatively affect the outcome. 
  3. Identify your intent. It is important to establish the reason for holding the conversation. This allows you to focus specifically on what you want the outcome of your interaction to be. Having a clear intent for holding the conversation helps you to stay focused and not be distracted by the road blocks or issues raised by your listener to avoid talking about the topic at hand. 
  4. Focus your listener’s attention. An effective way to do this is to share your intent and then follow it with an invitation to engage, such as, “I would like to talk about…. Can we do that?” Identifying the purpose for your conversation and inviting the other person to talk about it helps prepare them for the discussion and sets the proper tone.  

It is important to keep your statement of intent neutral. For example, if someone had been rude in a meeting and you wanted to address their behavior, you wouldn’t want to start with, “I would like to talk about how you were a real jerk today in our meeting. Can we talk about that?” Such a statement puts the other person on the defensive and will prevent the conversation from going forward. However, saying, “I would like to talk about improving today’s meeting. Can we discuss that?” will pique their curiosity and gain their attention. 

  1. Share facts first. Sharing the facts before your opinion is critical in a difficult conversation because the facts are what initially prompts a person’s reasoning. For example, if you said, “I noticed that when others were speaking, you interrupted them before they finished. I wonder if you realize the impact that had on the rest of the meeting.” Notice that the facts give rise to what a person will start to think about. If you lead with your opinion, they will likely discount or dismiss what you have to say. Sharing facts first will allow for a more reasonable response and avoid creating defensiveness in the other person. 
  2. Ask questions to understand. Once you have shared your observations and your thinking, then you are free to say something like, “Help me understand what you were thinking in that situation.” Follow up with as many additional questions as needed to clarify your understanding. This requires that you suspend your judgment of the person and truly focus on understanding them. 
  3. Summarize your understanding. After the person has answered your questions, take a minute to summarize your understanding. Share what you have learned about their point of view before offering your perspective. Then be sure to end with the question, “Is that right?” Or, “Is there anything I missed?” This provides the person with the opportunity to clarify and add any missing information. 
  4. Create a solution. Once you have understood one another, it is time to create a solution for the challenge you identified. The solution should be mutually agreeable to both parties. This is the most important part of the conversation because it is the reason that you are talking about the issue at hand. 

Some people like to identify a possible solution prior to holding the conversation. If this makes you feel more at ease, then definitely do so. However, after asking questions and listening to what the person is sharing, you will likely learn something more that will alter the solution that you previously identified. 

  1. Gain commitment. Once the solution is defined, reaffirm both parties’ commitment to the agreed-upon solution. Watch the other person’s reaction as you ask for their commitment. If they hesitate or sigh, roll their eyes or avoid eye contact, seem disengaged, ambivalent, or upset, then you need to check their degree of commitment to the plan. Their behavior will tell you if something has been omitted and that more searching questions are needed to understand the situation more fully. 
  2. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. When sharing facts or your thoughts, using “I” will soften what you are saying. For example, notice the difference between, “I wondered if you have really thought this through,” as opposed to, “You haven’t really thought this through.” The first sentence puts the emphasis on your thinking, whereas the second example sounds more like an accusation that will put them on the defensive.
  3. Control your emotions. Sometimes when holding a difficult conversation, emotions will begin to emerge. If this happens, it is important to control your emotions for your message to be heard. If you can’t control your feelings, then the emotion becomes the message and the content of what you would like to say will be lost. If your feelings start to get the best of you, it would be better for you to acknowledge what is happening and postpone the conversation until you can remain composed. 
  4. Be respectful. In order for your conversation to have the best results, you must be respectful in word, tone, and action. Being calm and in control of your delivery will help the other person to remain calm and at ease. Remember that some people interpret passion, elevated vocal levels, and animation as anger. Being respectful and courteous in what you say and do goes a long way toward contributing to the effectiveness of the conversation. 

Holding successful difficult conversations is possible when you prepare for the conversation, identify your intent, gain the attention of your listener, and distinguish fact from opinion. Once you have done this, you are ready to ask questions, summarize your understanding, and build a plan for success. Lastly, speaking in a way that people can hear your message by controlling your emotions and being respectful will greatly improve your ability to talk about tough topics and lead to positive results.  

P.S. I’m hosting a webinar tomorrow on “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.” Wouldn’t it be worth it to improve your emotional intelligence and increase your leadership capacity to manage yourself and others in difficult situations?