3 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations

Effective communication is essential in any relationship. When emotions run high or there are opposing opinions, communicating in a clear, controlled, and confident manner can be challenging. We may unintentionally send different spoken and unspoken messages from what we intend, fail to accomplish what we set out to achieve when we initiated the conversation, and most importantly, end up causing damage to the relationship. But, there are proven ways you can build trust and connection during difficult conversations:

1. Start with You

While it can be tempting to dive headfirst into a conversation to address the issue at hand, take time before engaging in the conversation to get yourself squared away. This enables you to pump the brakes and think more clearly. Reflect on the following:

    • What is my motivation for engaging in this conversation? If at any time you find yourself shutting down to keep the peace, win the argument, or punish the other person, bring your focus back to what you want to achieve from the conversation. If necessary, disengage from the conversation until you have had an opportunity to reset and clarify your motive.

    • What information or details I might be missing? Are you jumping to conclusions despite having little to no evidence? Are you assuming you know what the other person is thinking, or they should know what you are thinking? How did you contribute to the situation? How did circumstances contribute?

    • What values or beliefs are driving my emotions and leading me to initiate a conversation with the other person?

    • Do I have an accurate interpretation and understanding of the issue?

2. Make it Safe

In the book “Crucial Conversations,” the authors describe how critical it is to be mindful of the environment you’re creating so everyone feels comfortable engaging in the discussion. Don’t get so caught up in the content of the conversation that you become blind to the conditions. As people begin to feel unsafe in the conversation, they can move either in the direction of silence (withdrawing) or violence (dominating) the conversation. Look for the following signs:

Increasing your awareness of your conversation style under stress can help you stay on track.

3. Seek to Understand

In the heat of the moment, when emotions run high and we want the other person to hear our opinion or see our perspective, we can fall into having a monologue with the other person instead of a dialogue. To avoid talking ‘at’ the other person, look for opportunities to invite the other person into the conversation. Ask WHAT and HOW questions instead of WHY questions. WHAT and HOW questions focus on understanding the issue and the other person’s perspective. WHY questions often lead to an increase in negative emotions.

Additionally, paraphrase or repeat back what the other person said. This demonstrates that you are actively listening and allows the other person to reflect on what they said, to clarify if misinterpreted or expand on what was originally expressed.

Just like learning to ride a bike or pick up a new language, learning to have difficult conversations takes deliberate practice. Difficult conversations don’t have to start poorly, become tense, and then lead to negative outcomes. By using these strategies, you can become a more skilled and effective communicator while building trust and connection within your relationships.


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