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How to Have a "Difficult Conversation"

Whether you're a C-Class executive, Sunday School teacher or housewife and mother you have had (or will have) a difficult conversation with someone in your circle of colleagues, family or friends.  For purposes of this article I am defining "difficult conversations" as those in which you have something unpleasant or negative to tell another person with whom you enjoy a good and valuable relationship.  The person can be your supervisor, close friend, sibling or professional colleague. 

These conversations by their very nature make us uncomfortable and uneasy, if not anxious, at just the thought of having to talk with the person and share news that they don't want to hear.  I know this from personal experience.  As a business owner and CEO of a global ministry I have have a few difficult conversations under my belt.  Whether speaking with a family member, church leader or a business colleague the same initial feelings of just wanting to forget the conversation and go run and hide are always present!  

What is it about these talks that can have us all tied up in knots?  Well, for starters you don't want the "bad" news to ruin a relationship that you value and cherish.  After all, you're speaking with someone that you actually want in your life - people with whom you desire to maintain a good and positive relationship.  We often fear that having this conversation will kill the relationship (at least in the way we once enjoyed it).  But, it's important to remember that the very reason you're sharing this information with the person is because you care so much for them.  You value the relationship too much to let them continue without knowing the truth.  

I had a friend in college who anguished over telling another one of our friends that the other girl's boyfriend of several years was out flirting with girls all over campus and had even hit on her.  She was torn between wanting to stick her head in the sand and just let "time" work it out and being the bearer of this grim news to her dear friend.  Fear can often cause us to refrain from doing what's right.  We ask things like, "How will the other person react?"  "Will they lash out at me?" "Will they tell other people bad things about me and mar my reputation in our professional community?"

While these are all legitimate concerns, I want you to know that if you truly believe that you must share this information with another person, then don't let fear of possible repercussions stop you.  God will always bless you when you do the right thing!  Always!  Here are a few tips to help you as you prepare to have your next "difficult conversation":

1.  I always find it best to invite the person to a place where we both will feel comfortable to speak.  While the meeting spot can be a public place such as a cafe, it should always be a place where you can have a private conversation.  Keep the invitation generic so the person will not be put off and refuse to show up to the meeting!  For example, let's say that after reflecting you have decided not to proceed with a new business venture with a friend.  Introduce the topic by saying something like, "I'd really like to talk to you about the upcoming business deal that we've discussed.  I have some thoughts that I need to share with you."  

2.  It's best not to invite another person to the meeting unless it's a family meeting or actually involves the other party. If the issue is just between you and the other person, then you are the only two people who should be present.  If you invite someone else for your own comfort, you run the risk that the other person may feel ganged up on or feel the need to posture to avoid embarrassment in front of the third party.

3.  Prepare a mental speech of the literal words that you will use to start the conversation.  This will calm your nerves and help you to stay focused on what you need to say.  Instead of saying, "Someone told me yesterday that you...", say, "I received a phone call yesterday about you that has me concerned."  The first statement immediately takes the listeners mind to find out who is the person that told you something negative.  The second statement focuses more on the content of what was said as opposed to who said it.  Carefully organize your thoughts with all of the information that you want to share.

4.  Be honest!  We owe it to the other person and to ourselves to be honest with all of the information that we share.  In some cases this may even mean exposing our emotions and personal thoughts on the issue.  In meetings I have even said, "I did not want to share this with you.  I thought of every way to get around this issue, but I keep coming back to the same conclusion."  People know when you are being genuine and honest with them.  While they may not want to hear the news that you're sharing and may even be upset at the moment, they will appreciate your integrity.

5.  Maintain the seriousness of the conversation, but relax and be yourself.  This will alleviate tension and pressure for both parties.  It's okay to smile and even laugh at some points, but don't act as though it's no big deal.  It is a big deal and that's why it's a difficult conversation!  This is especially important to keep in mind when the news that you share may be positive for you, but negative to the listener.  This may be the case if you are resigning from a position and talking to a supervisor whom you respect and admire.

6.  Finally and perhaps most importantly, remind the person how much they mean to you and how you value the relationship.  Be sure to explain that it is because of that admiration and respect that you were compelled to speak with them about the issue.  This will go a long way to preserving the relationship despite the difficult news that you have to share.

6 Comments to How to Have a "Difficult Conversation":

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hazael garay on Friday, May 10, 2013 1:23 PM
Excellent advice! I will put itDd into Dractice next time I have to have one of those HARD conversations.
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Cynthia Murray on Friday, May 10, 2013 2:04 PM
Thanks, Hazael! As unpleasant as the thought of those hard conversations can be, these tips really help.
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