Psychologist Emma White is here to explain why we find this difficult and share some tips for having difficult conversations.
Having a difficult conversation makes us feel vulnerable
“The reason you’re nervous is that you’re being vulnerable,” explains Emma White, a psychologist at OpenUp. “You’re sharing how you feel or how someone is making you feel. That can seem like you’re taking a risk, for example of getting hurt or rejected.”
As humans, we all want to belong to something and to keep the peace within a group. Emma: “Having a difficult conversation is risky because it undermines social cohesion. But be aware that this cohesion has often already been disrupted before you have the conversation. Because obviously something isn’t going well between you and this other person, whether they realize this or not.
Silence just makes things worse
It’s important that we don’t stay silent on issues that are important to us. Silence is golden, or so the saying goes, but silence definitely isn’t always the answer: the things we don’t say often say a lot. They figuratively hang in the air, like a bomb waiting to go off.
Emma: “If you don’t bring up things that are bothering you, it usually leads to more problems than if you’d just said something. As Brené Brown shows in her pioneering research, it takes guts to show vulnerability and it is essential if you want to lead a happy life. If we don’t have the guts to engage in difficult conversations, we stay in a deadlock and there’s a good chance that we won’t get our needs met or have our boundaries respected.”
How to handle the fear you feel before a difficult conversation
It’s always going to be nerve-wracking, but you can learn better ways to manage the fear you feel before a difficult conversation. Emma: “Above all, try to consciously sit with how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and how you’re behaving. Recognize that it’s okay – and normal – to find this nerve-wracking, and that what you’re thinking is often a default reaction to a nerve-wracking situation. By observing and experiencing these nerves in a conscious manner, you’ll gain more control over the situation and you’ll notice that your nerves decrease.”
Challenging your thoughts can also be a good way to get a better handle over a situation. Ask yourself questions like: ‘What am I really afraid of right now?’, ‘What is the worst that can happen?’, and ‘What is the actual chance of that happening?’.
Emma: “Right before the conversation, it can be helpful to write down everything that comes to mind. When you do this, you’re literally getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, creating more space to approach the conversation with focus and attention”.
Another useful tip is to shift your focus to what you want to get out of the conversation instead of what could go wrong. Emma: “Often we focus all our attention on the nerves we’re feeling. But it can actually be a relief to think about what exactly the positive outcomes of a conversation like this might be.”
5 tips for having a difficult conversation
What’s the best way to prepare for a difficult conversation and what practical things can you do? Emma is here to share her tips.
1. Get things straight in your head: what am I feeling, what do I want, and what is my part in this?
“When preparing for a difficult conversation, you first want to clarify for yourself how you’re feeling and what you’d like to get out of the conversation. Also think about what your part is in this scenario because when a conflict occurs between two people, you’ve both played a role.
You can learn a lot by reflecting on this. Is there anything you’d do differently next time? By taking some responsibility, you’ll encourage the other person to do the same.
Isn’t it great when both parties acknowledge the role they’ve played and work together to figure out what they could do differently? After all, it takes two to tango and pointing the finger rarely gets you far.”
2. Look at the situation from the other person’s perspective
“Be as curious as possible. Go into the conversation with the assumption that the other person – just like you – is coming at this with the best of intentions. Be understanding and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Where is this other person coming from? What are they trying to do or achieve? Often, we don’t want to hurt other people, overstep their boundaries, or do anything we shouldn’t. That’s as true for you as it is for the other person.
However, it’s not always immediately easy to see a situation from another person’s perspective. That’s okay. Ask yourself: how can I develop a mindset that allows me to set my own thoughts to one side and be completely curious about this other person’s story?”
3. Listen first and then look for a solution
“You might enter a conversation with a solution already in mind, but this can give you tunnel vision and make you less open to the other person’s perspective. Try to hear each other out first and understand what the other person means and where they’re coming from.
When doing this, don’t just pay attention to what is being said, but how it is being said, in terms of body language, facial expressions, eye contact, emphasis on certain words etc. This often tells you more than the actual words.
Ask lots of questions; this shows that you’re genuinely interested and trying to understand the other person. Do you find this hard? Then imagine that someone has asked you to write this up as a story later. This will make you want to really understand and to listen to what the other person has to say.”
4. Take good care of yourself – before, during and after the conversation
“When having difficult conversations, it’s also important to take good care of yourself. Before the conversation, allow yourself plenty of space by taking a moment to exercise, having a drink, writing, getting a bit of fresh air, or doing a breathing exercise. This will help you to enter the conversation with a clear and open mind, and to hold your focus better.
During the conversation, a range of emotions may arise; this is totally normal. Remember here: emotions don’t yield for anything. That goes for both you and the other person.
Point this out, grab a drink, or maybe put the conversation on hold for a moment. Sometimes it’s better to take some time and think about how you want to react, instead of saying something in the heat of the moment that you’ll later regret
After the conversation, you can reflect on how things went and ask yourself what you learned from it. What went well and what could have gone better? Maybe schedule a follow-up conversation, so you can see how things are going between the two of you and how you want to progress.”
5. Come up with a solution together
“Try to always maintain a ‘together we will find a solution’ mindset. Listen to the other person’s point of view, show that you understand each other, and brainstorm ideas and solutions together. Who knows, you might inspire each other to come up with an even better idea than you could have imagined in the first place. You always accomplish much more with another person.”
Do you need help having a conversation like this?
Having a difficult conversation is always a nerve-wracking affair. And that makes sense. It’s great to discuss it or practice it with someone close to you first. Do this with a good friend or colleague, or schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists.