Do you dread having tough conversations?

A close friend of mine told me about a conversation she needed to have with her mother-in-law. Grandma was giving my friend’s children overly expensive and elaborate gifts for major occasions like birthdays and Christmas, while showering them with disposable plastic goodies from the Dollar Store every other time the kids were with Grandma and Grandpa.

The sheer amount of stuff was getting out of hand. And, the expectation of always getting a gift was creating a precedent for the kids that concerned my friend.

She wanted it all to stop. Her question was, how do you say that to your mother-in-law?

We’ve all probably found ourselves in similar quandaries. We need to talk about something potentially upsetting, or emotional, or difficult, and we want to do it in a way that causes the least amount of distress – to both of you.

I suggested that my friend consider a couple of strategies before having that conversation with her mother-in-law.

Strategies for Having Tough Conversations

  • Start with heart. This phrase from a book called Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, 2002) has become my mantra when I’m thinking about and planning for a challenging encounter. I think it sums up the best way for you to approach the situation – and it can also be your touchstone if you find your emotions getting the better of you while you’re in the middle of the conversation. Ask yourself, What do I want our relationship to look like once this conversation is over? Do I want to “win” at all costs, or do I really want to solve this situation? Do I want to punish the other person for hurting me, or do I want to stay focused on finding a solution? Do I want to damage or maintain this relationship? If you start with heart, and keep returning to that place of empathy during your conversation, you’ll have a much better chance of a positive resolution and the outcome you want.
  • Use “I” statements. If you’re trying to talk about a difficult issue or a problem that needs to be solved, the word “You” can be your worst enemy. “You” messages can flip all kinds of defensive switches in people. “You” messages typically make people mad or upset because they sound accusatory, blaming, or hostile. People focus on their irritation or hurt feelings, not on what you’re trying to say. They also usually try to defend themselves. Once those defenses come up, the conversation often goes downhill. “I” statements, on the other hand, allow us to express our feelings and needs without alienating or angering the other person. “I” statements usually begin with phrases like “I feel…”, “I need…”, “I have a problem with…”, “I believe…”, or “I’m concerned about…” With “I” statements, we don’t blame others for how we feel – which means that the conversation can be calm, positive, respectful, and create a sense of teamwork and cooperation.
  • Align with the other person. Alignment is the key to maintaining – or returning to – a calmer state when things are getting heated. As you listen to the other person, put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, “What do they need or want from me to feel better?” The goal is to help them meet some of their needs without sacrificing your own. To do this, look for areas of common ground between you, no matter how small they might be. Then redirect or gently steer the conversation to those areas of common ground. Ultimately, you’re working to find a middle ground you can live with, find a common concern you can work on together, or decide to agree to disagree.

While it’s never easy to say something the other person might not want to hear, the alternative – letting the situation continue as is – can lead to even more problems down the road. Resentments can build, frustrations can reach the boiling point, and the relationship will most likely suffer. If you can approach those challenging conversations with empathy, keep your language “I” focused, and find common ground you share, you can work to resolve issues and difficulties with grace, compassion, and positivity.

When have you had tough conversations? How did they go? Would you do anything differently if you had a “do over?” Share your thoughts here!