What’s the best way to handle a difficult conversation?

Peter Osborn

19

April 2021

What’s the best way to handle a difficult conversation? Well, here’s a radical suggestion. Don’t have it.

Now, I’m not suggesting you duck it. But I am suggesting you first ask yourself a fundamental question.

What exactly is it about this conversation that’s difficult?

Is it the subject? The relationship? The situation? Or maybe a mix of all those things?

With all of these, the fact that you frame the conversation as ‘difficult’ implies some level of anticipated pain – some uncertainty or anxiety about how this conversation might go. Pain you’d rather avoid.

There could be a lot at stake – job, income, family. Something you care about, something someone else cares about.  

You don’t want to blow it. You want to say the right words and hit the right tone – but you don’t know how the other person will react. Or maybe how you’ll react to their reaction. There’s the potential for emotions to boil over and you don’t particularly want to be there when they do.

In short, the whole thing’s a bit of a minefield and navigating through it is a daunting prospect.

From 'difficult' to 'creative'

But just because a conversation needs to be had about a difficult subject – or in a difficult relationship or situation – it doesn’t have to be a difficult conversation. You can make it a creative conversation instead. Same situation, same people – different conversation.

By a ‘creative conversation’ we mean one that creates something of value, that’s imbued – by you – with all the things we humans do when we’re at our best.

In a creative conversation, you decide to bring responsibility, clarity, open-mindedness, understanding and respect to the fore and, in that way, address everyone's needs to be heard and understood, while at the same time ensuring that the things that need saying are said – however uncomfortable they might be to hear.

In fact, the more difficult a subject, relationship or situation, the greater the need to call on the best of your abilities to help that conversation go as well as possible – which means staying calm, seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, being clear and non-judgemental, and challenging (plus dealing with challenge) well and positively.

Abilities like these are often thought of as personality traits – ‘You’ve either got it or you haven’t.’  They’re not. They’re skills that can be learnt and practised by anyone.  And as with anything, it's amazing how much more confident you feel when you know you’ve got some reliable skills at your disposal.

Reframing and agency

With them, that scary picture – the one of the minefield – starts to be reframed in your own mind as a safer, more positive, more navigable situation. The conversation hasn’t happened yet but you’ve already transformed it – from being a ‘difficult’ conversation into being a creative conversation about a difficult subject; or a creative conversation in a difficult relationship or situation.

In short, with that change of mindset you give yourself agency. You put yourself in the driving seat. You decide right now what kind of conversation, what kind of relationship, you’re going to have with that person. And then you practise and hone the skills of creative conversation to put that relationship in place.

That doesn’t mean it might not take a bit of courage.

The most challenging thing I ever had to do was to sit down with my wife Gayle and our two children and tell them about her terminal cancer diagnosis.

The situation was as hard as they come – but the conversation wasn’t. We all knew how to do it because we’d made a habit of having open conversations with our kids about all kinds of things as they were growing.

Building bandwidth

To put it another way, we had bandwidth in our relationships – bandwidth that had built up, over lots and lots of smaller conversations, a great reservoir of trust and resilience between us. A relationship with enough bandwidth can accommodate any kind of situation or disagreement and even be strengthened by it.  Relationships with very low bandwidth, on the other hand, can be shattered by the slightest of things.

So remember – you have agency. You decide what kind of relationship, what kind of conversations, you want to have.

And you can build bandwidth in all your relationships by practising on the small stuff, by taking every opportunity to build understanding and connection. So that when difficult situations arise, you don’t have to have difficult conversations about them.

You can have creative ones instead.

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