Five steps to prepare for difficult conversations

Do you avoid having difficult conversations you know you should have?

Do you worry that you won’t know how to say what you need to say?

Does having that hard talk make you so anxious and stressed that the whole thing becomes so overwhelming you can hardly think straight?

The ability to have difficult conversations in a calm, clear and effective manner is a key mental strength skill.

In my last post (and podcast), How to Have Difficult Conversations, I shared why it’s so important to have these talks when we need to, and shared a 4-step process for handling tough conversations in a mentally stronger way. In this post I want to share with you how to prepare for a difficult conversation.

In my own personal experience, I have found that preparing for a tough talk with someone is even more important to the outcome, as the words you say when you’re in it with them. Because it’s often the attitude and the clarity that we go into these discussions with that makes the difference.

Listen to my latest podcast, or keep reading below, to learn a 5-step checklist that you can work through before you’re face to face with someone and trying to communicate about the issues at hand. I can attest first-hand to the value of learning this process in creating better outcomes and ultimately, better relationships with those around us.

A 5-step checklist to help you prepare for that tough conversation

Most of us don’t enjoy having a difficult conversation in the first place, but there is nothing worse than going in being unclear about what you’re doing. That is the perfect situation to create more misunderstanding, conflict, and escalation of emotions. This 5-step checklist will show you how to prepare for a difficult conversation by helping you define your purpose, intention, and the part you might play in the issue you’re trying to address. It also helps you consider the other person’s point of view, and focus on a win-win solution. 

Here are the steps you can take to prepare.

1. Clarify your purpose

The first step to prepare for a difficult conversation is to clarify your purpose. Ask yourself what your reason is for having the discussion. What do you hope to accomplish? What outcome are you hoping for? What are your needs and values in this situation?

Watch for hidden motives in yourself. For instance, you may start out believing you have good intentions. Such as asking for support or educating someone about improving their behaviour. Only to realise, there is a hidden motive to punish them or just get what you want. Some purposes are more helpful than others. Aim to start the conversation with a clear purpose.

2. Check your story

The second step of the checklist is to check your story. Ask yourself what assumptions and stories you are making about this person’s intentions, motives, or character. You may feel hurt, angry, disrespected, or disappointed, but be very careful here. Impact does not equal intent. 

Also, check in with how the situation might be triggering stuff from your past. Is this person pushing your buttons in a way that is a familiar pattern in your own life? How is your own personal history playing into this current situation?

3. Walk in their shoes

Consider what the other person might be experiencing in this situation. They are likely to be seeing things quite differently to you. 

Are they even aware there is a problem? What might they be thinking or feeling about this situation? What are their needs and concerns? Also, what solution to this problem might be agreeable for them?

4. Own your part

The fourth step is to own your part in things. In situations where there is any kind of tension or conflict, it’s natural to focus on what others have done that’s disagreeable. 

This can be useful for a time to help you get clear on the situation and to tune into your own needs and feelings, and what you’d like others to change. But beware, fixating on the wrongs done by others tends to ramp up your own stress and anger, making you more fixed and rigid in your own view of things. It makes it harder for you to be objective and to remember the good qualities in the other person, and can skew your ability to own your part in the situation. 

So, it pays to check in with yourself and ask how you may have contributed to the issues at hand. 

We all have flaws and faults, times when we are out of step with our integrity. Times when we lie or are selfish or treat people as if they don’t matter. We all act in ways where we don’t care as much about the impact on others, or blow our responsibilities. 

So have a check-in with yourself and honestly and gently, ask what your own part is in the story.

5. Go in with goodwill

Often when we have a difficult conversation we think of the other as an adversary, an opponent. Reframe the adversary to ally. Have an attitude toward the conversation that you are aiming to promote understanding, healing, helpful solutions, and clarity. Also note your state of being. If you are present, centred, supportive, and curious this will greatly influence what you say and how the other person feels when they’re hearing it.

If you think this is going to be dreadful and messy, it probably will be. If you truly hold the intention that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Adjust your attitude to one of genuine goodwill, partnership, and positive solutions and you will be likely to have a more helpful outcome.

Recapping how to prepare for a difficult conversation

  1. Clarify your purpose
  2. Check your story
  3. Walk in their shoes
  4. Own your part
  5. Go in with goodwill

Doing this five step checklist before your difficult conversation will ground you in a helpful attitude, a calm and clear mind and give you the support you need in getting a good outcome. Be sure to check out my previous post, How to have Difficult Conversations: A 4-step framework.

You can also download the “5 Steps to Prepare for Difficult Conversations” Checklist here.

This week’s mental strength practice

This week, try to use this preparation checklist before you have at least one tricky conversation to see how this goes for you. Try it with the little issues first if you like. It doesn’t have to be a big conversation yet (although if you’re reading this and you know there’s a long overdue conversation you need to have, then go for it). 

Try to get more comfortable having tricky conversations in a healthy, clear, and compassionate way. Even though they can be a bit stressful or scary, avoiding hard conversations usually ends up leading to bigger problems. Each day that passes creates more detachment, deepens rifts for those involved, and is a breeding ground for further misunderstandings.

So even though this might feel like an uncomfortable one, I really encourage you to practice this 5-step checklist and have a difficult conversation. Just see how it goes for you.

Join me in Headstrong

If you’re finding these practices helpful to your life, and you’re ready to take your mental strength to the next level, I invite you to join me in Headstrong. It’s my 8-week intensive mental strength program. Headstrong offers the best of everything I’ve learned in over two decades of mental strength training and teaching. It’s designed to get rapid transformational results and arm you with powerful tools and skills that will last a lifetime. This program will help you not only survive but thrive – even in tough times.

Learn more about Headstrong here.

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