How to have difficult conversations: A four-step framework

Difficult conversations, although they are not easy, are really important. 

Here’s why. 

If you don’t have a kind, clear and direct conversation with someone, then you will usually hold resentment against them. 

Resentments we fail to address usually turn into blame or anger, or unhelpful or even toxic relational patterns like talking behind someone’s back or passive-aggressive behaviour (think snide remarks, silent treatment, accusations). Also, instead of having that hard conversation you may repress your needs, values and feelings, and end up putting up with behaviours you actually don’t like or want. 

Hit play on the podcast below, or keep reading where I’ll share a simple four-step process to have difficult conversations.

Why tricky conversations are important to have

Avoiding difficult conversations is often the reason that friendships and relationships often end up falling apart. It’s the reason people hold grudges for years. It’s the reason people stay in relationships that are bad for them. It’s also what helps prejudice and harmful behaviours continue.

Being able to talk about tough topics like feminism or racism is necessary. Not only because it is important to speak your mind on these issues and adhere to your values, but also because it really does make a difference in the world.

Having difficult conversations also ensures you stop being a victim. You stand up for yourself and what matters so that you can remain more empowered and authentic in the situations you face.

Difficult conversations are healthy. They are a necessity in life. 

Here’s the problem though.

Most of us are conflict averse. We want to avoid tough talks. It’s much more comfortable to avoid the elephant in the room, even if the elephant is standing right on your toes!

There are many examples in the world where people avoid the hard stuff and that leads to so many personal, societal, and global issues.

It can be uncomfortable to have these conversations but for all these reasons it’s crucial that we have difficult conversations when it’s needed. To do so, it’s helpful to have a framework to support you in staying calm, clear and confident and getting the best outcome when you have that conversation. This framework is based on the work of psychologist, author, and relationship researcher John Gottman.

How to have difficult conversations in four steps

1. Start with “I” statements

Gottman says that in those times when we need to have a difficult conversation, one of the mistakes that we often make is in beginning the conversation with what he calls a ‘harsh start-up’. This means that the start of the discussion comes out sounding like criticism towards the other, or even contempt for them. A harsh start-up typically begins with the word ‘you’. 

Such as, “You never pull your weight around here,” or “You don’t even care what I want.” Maybe starting with, “You don’t listen to me,” or “You always talk over the top.” 

Starting a conversation like this means the other person is very likely to get defensive and things can easily escalate into a fight. In fact, Gottman’s research found 96% of the time, if the discussion starts with a harsh start-up, the outcome of the conversation will end as it began. That is, negative and hostile.

So instead, try to start your conversation with “I” statements instead of ““you” statements. This way you are less likely to be critical. And if possible, start by naming the emotion you’re feeling in the situation. So, starting most of the time with “I feel”, instead of “You did.”

2. Describe what happened without judgement

Explain what specifically led to you feeling the way that you feel, but try to describe that  without making any evaluations or judgements. 

So, combining steps one and two would sound like this: 

Instead of saying “You are so lazy”, you can say “I feel frustrated because you said you would do the dishes last night, but you didn’t.” 

Instead of saying “You’re so bad with money”, you could say, “ I feel concerned because for the last three weeks you have spent more than our agreed budget.” 

So, you’re naming the actual thing that’s upsetting you, without making a value-judgement about somebody else.

3. Ask for what you need or want in positive terms

In this step it’s really important to ask for what you do want from the other person in positive terms. That is, ask for what you want rather than what you don’t want. Here are some examples:

After you say, “I feel frustrated because you said you would do the dishes last night, but you didn’t”, you can then add for step 3: “Can you please do them today?”

When you say, “ I feel concerned because for the last three weeks you have spent more than our agreed budget”, you can then add, “Would you please stick to our agreed budget from now on?”.

4. Be a good listener

Be willing to hear the other person’s side of the story and listen with a desire to truly understand them. Try to withhold any judgments and don’t interrupt while you are listening to their perspective. Ask questions to clarify their position or opinion.

If the other person starts being defensive, judgemental, or difficult? Aim not to get drawn into that tailspin of trying to prove who is right. 

They may not say yes to your request, but see if you can stay present and curious and keep your mind solutions-focused. Keep working toward mutual understanding and respect. Finding a win-win solution is the goal. 

Being listened to and being truly heard by the other is the ultimate diffuser of tension and cultivates healthy connections and psychological safety.

To recap the four steps:

  1. Speak in ‘I’ statements and try to name your feelings, for example, “I feel…”
  2. Describe what happened without judgement
  3. Ask for what you want from the other in positive terms
  4. Truly listen to the other side

So, I encourage you to give this framework a try this week at least once. It doesn’t have to be with a huge issue. Try it with the little things. The partner who didn’t take the garbage out. The co-worker who talks over the top of you in a meeting. The acquaintance who makes inappropriate comments about others. 

Try to use this framework and get more comfortable with it until it feels like second nature.

Some final thoughts

  • It goes without saying that as you deliver your message to the other person, they’re also going to be looking at your body language and hearing your tone of voice. Speaking in a polite, kind, and caring way goes a long way to diffusing potential arguments and escalations. As well as recognising that so much of our communication is not in the words, but in the way we speak them.As Mother Teresa once said, “Kind words can be short and easy, but their echoes are endless.”
  • When you’re talking to someone about a difficult topic, try to focus on just one issue at a time. If you’ve been holding a lot of stuff in, don’t go to them with the fifteen things that have been bothering you all at once. That is going to be really hard for them to digest. Try to focus on one issue at a time as much as possible.
  • When you go in to have your talk, remember the value of the relationship itself as well as the issue at hand. Relationships are precious and valuable and a lot of the time, we can lose sight of how valuable they are in the heat of the moment.
  • Rather than the talk just being about getting what you want, be focused on a win-win solution for you both. Not just getting your way.

Avoiding hard conversations because of worries about hurt feelings or wanting to avoid difficulty causes more problems down the road. Each day that passes causes more detachment 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 these four steps at least once. May it bring you more fulfilling relationships, less stress and greater mental strength.

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If what you’ve been putting into practice with me has been helpful for you, and you want to take your mental strength to the next level, I invite you to join me in Headstrong. Headstrong is a transformational 8-week mental strength program designed to permanently shift a state of mental struggle into mental strength. Using cutting-edge, evidence-based and practical tools and skills, this program will help you let go of negative thinking, reduce stress and anxiety develop unshakable resilience and live a with more meaning, purpose and passion.

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