Maybe you’re breaking up with a significant other. Perhaps you need to establish some kind of better boundaries for a person’s role in your life. You could be letting college coaches who have recruited you down easy or be asking them for things you want. Maybe your athlete’s grades are slipping and you need to confront them with hard realities. Possibly, you just need to say something difficult to somebody so that you can move on. I’ve had some weird practice at having hard conversations, and I want to tell you what I’ve learned.
Here are four steps to take if you’re facing a challenging interpersonal interaction. As an introvert, I actually get a lot of satisfaction out of these conversations, because they’re genuine and raw and (hopefully) actually accomplish something. It took me a long time, though, to recognize how much relief ripping the proverbial bandaid off brings: Just get on with talking to the person you need to talk to.
1. Recognize the actual problem.
Take your time to figure out why you’re really upset. Talk to your people.
What in particular is bothering you about your situation? Who knows you best that you can discuss your feelings with to sort them out? How long do you need to not only do that, but to take hold of your emotions so that you can exchange ideas in a respectful manner?
For five years, I threw javelins mostly by myself here in Colorado Springs. Just me and my music at USAFA, focusing on and loving my job. When I trained at the Olympic Training Center for those five years, an individual was very often there observing and making conversation throughout my practices.
When Dana became my coach, I was thrilled and loved having her excellent eye at javelin throwing sessions! She is my good friend so we laugh a lot, too! But suddenly I had another human at every single practice I had, no matter which physical location I was at. As an introvert, I started to go insane. I had lost my focused alone time, but it wasn’t until I snapped at the individual at the OTC that I realized what the problem actually was. I love my job and I WANT to focus on it, but I wasn’t forced to truly figure out why I was so bothered until I finally lost my temper. It wasn’t that I didn’t like this person necessarily, it was just that I craved time to myself during every training week, and I needed to calm down, talk to Russ, and express my need for boundaries respectfully.
What you’re going to say and why.
How will you present your point of view to another human in a respectful manner? How can you ensure that you don’t get riled up by a counterpoint they might make? Knowing what you want to say and knowing what you need to say are two different things sometimes. Think about what you actually NEED to get out of the conversation to be satisfied. It’s basically a negotiation: What are your minimum requirements for success? Do you have solutions or just complaints? What might the other person’s point of view be? How will that change (or not change) the way you think about your needs? Knowing what you’ll say is important, but knowing WHY you need to say those things is even more important. How will this conversation, ideally, make your life better moving forward? Understanding your why will help you be firm in your requests, and if your why is rooted in you getting better, whoever you’re talking to will understand that more than just, “because I said so,” or “because that’s just how it’s gonna be.”
The day after my emotional reaction, I apologized to this person, said that I recognized the individual’s interest in my training as support and enthusiasm and was grateful for that, but that I needed time to myself on specific days to get everything out of training that I wanted to. It was well-received because I took the time to think about what I know about this person and how to package my important points in a difficult conversation with them, plus what my ideal outcome was.
Prepare for disappointment.
Sometimes, because we’re human and we have egos, among other reasons, a conversation won’t have the outcome you think you need. If you’re aware of that possibility, recognize that even saying the things you need to say without any kind of acknowledgement or apology from the other side can be therapeutic.
I’m not a bitter person. But I believe that anyone can develop bitterness if they don’t take the initiative to at least say what’s on their mind to whoever they need to confront. I’ve waited too long to have two different difficult conversations that I knew wouldn’t have great outcomes for me. It’s not about belittling another person or getting your rage out, it’s about clearing your own head in order to move forward. You can still be respectful. You can call it taking the high road if you want. Not getting mad that you’re not getting your way, but still saying what you need to say, is really powerful. Don’t let someone else’s stubbornness trick you into bearing a burden that should be shared.
3. Be courteous.
Meet on neutral ground.
Especially if you know that you’re the one with the biggest problem in the relationship, request to meet in a place that’s either neutral or the other person’s “territory.” If you’ve done something to indicate that you have a problem or the other person might feel blindsided, it can be respectful to give them home field advantage.
Obviously a private, quiet location is important in order to not make your conversation other peoples’ eavesdrop fodder and therefore more stressful. Stick to the points you’ve thought of before and remember your whys in order to not get emotional within the conversation. Let the other person finish sentences. Keep your voice down and calm.
Listen. Don’t gossip.
Allow it to be a conversation, not a monologue. Recognize that any anger coming from the other party might just be surprise and not genuine emotion. You’re the one who has prepared for this, not them necessarily, so be understanding and not reactionary. Take your time responding to statements if you need to to stay calm. Again, stick to your points, but hear the other side and respond to it respectfully as well.
Once you have a conversation, or while you’re preparing for it, keep your sounding boards to a minimum. Don’t solicit every opinion you can on your interpersonal issues. That’s rude.
4. Move on.
If all goes as you need it to, move on. You’ve had the difficult conversation for a reason, and if you prepare well enough for it, take your time to cover all your points, and are respectful and productive enough together to find a solution, move forward. Again, don’t gossip. Give life some time after a difficult conversation to equilibrate again, and if you still haven’t solved the issue or something is still wrong, go back to step 1. Either the conversation worked or it didn’t, so be mature and either move on or go back to the drawing board. I could do better at this. Ripping the bandaid off should be easier the second time around, but it’s not worse, it’s just in a slightly different area.
Since I mentioned preparing for disappointment, I’ll mention this: I had a difficult conversation with someone once that I knew would likely not result in an apology or admission of responsibility of any kind, so I was prepared for that outcome, and felt a lot better just by saying my peace. The conversation was over the phone, and when I saw this person again in person a few years later, they seemed not to think it was weird to try jumping back into a chummy interaction with me. I really do think that difficult conversations can be effective over the phone, but clearly there are cases when in-person clarification is necessary, and if you find yourself surprised that phone convos don’t carry over to real life, be prepared to either have another hard talk, or deal with the discomfort of that inconsistency in whatever way you can. It’s tough when you think you’ve dealt with a problem only to have it show up again later, but that’s just more opportunity to practice being a darn adult. (Which no one does perfectly.)
Unfortunately there are situations across all walks of life in which difficult conversations are necessary! I hope I’ve helped you be braver in navigating them by sharing my experiences and advice. Comments and questions always welcome!