A number of years ago a mentor of mine said something really important to me. He told me that there is often one thing that stands between me and the kind of relationships I really want to have.
When I asked what that was, he said, “It’s usually a ten-minute, sweaty-palmed conversation that you’re too afraid to have.”
He went on to say, “It’s engaging effectively in these difficult conversations that help build fantastic relationships. But, if you do like most people and you avoid them, you’ll end up giving away a lot of your power to others and creating unnecessary difficulty.”
His wisdom and insight was spot on, and I’ve been sharing it with others ever since he said it to me.
And although I’ve had my fair share of difficult conversations over the years, and in most cases they have gone well, allowed me to resolve conflicts with others, and created a deeper level of trust and connection in my relationships, I’m still amazed at how easy it is for me to avoid talking about hard things due to my fear of the discomfort or repercussions.
Why Do We Avoid Difficult Conversations?
When we find justifications for not having these difficult conversations, it doesn’t serve us or those around us. In fact, it takes an enormous amount of energy.
So why do we do this? Why do we avoid sweaty-palmed conversations, or worse, end up gossiping, complaining, and actively blaming others for our own discomfort? I think there are a number of reasons we do this, but here are a few of the big ones:
1. We live in a culture of blame and avoidance.
It’s much easier and more socially acceptable to blame others when something happens we don’t like or to simply avoid dealing with a conflict. Most of us weren’t taught in school, at home, or as we’ve moved into our adult lives how to effectively deal with conflict in a healthy and productive way, so we aren’t all that well-equipped to address it.
2. We’ve all had painful experiences in our past trying to deal with difficult situations and conversations.
From the most extreme to the somewhat mild, each of us has experienced pain, hurt, disappointment, shame, failure, and more in our attempts to address a conflict, stand up for ourselves, or engage in a touchy discussion. These experiences often cause us to protect ourselves in one way or another.
3. Difficult conversations make us vulnerable
Talking about stuff like this makes us vulnerable and it can be quite scary, both because of our past experiences and also because by doing so we expose ourselves to those specific things we don’t want to experience — pain, hurt, disappointment, shame, failure, and more.
It takes courage to have these sweaty-palmed conversations (which sometimes take more than ten minutes, of course). More often than not, we’d rather be safe than risk looking bad, making things worse, or doing damage to ourselves, our relationships, and others.
It’s also important to acknowledge that our lack of safety can also be tied to our race, gender, orientation, positional power (or lack thereof), and a number of other factors, all of which make being vulnerable more difficult and even downright scary.
What to Think About When Dealing With a Difficult Conversation
Here are a few things to think about and remember when dealing with a conflict or difficult conversation:
1) Take responsibility
It always “takes two to tango.” Taking responsibility is not about being at fault or blaming the other person, it’s about owning up to the situation and recognizing that we are a part of the issue. It’s also about honestly feeling and expressing our emotions with authenticity.
2) Address the conflict directly
Conflicts are always handled most successfully when they’re dealt with directly and promptly. Be real and vulnerable when you approach someone with an issue and make sure to do so as soon as possible. Don’t let it fester.
3) Seek first to understand
As challenging as it can be, the best approach in any conflict situation is to listen with as much understanding, compassion, and empathy as possible — even and especially when you’re feeling angry or defensive. If you can understand where the other person is coming from, even if you don’t agree, you have a good chance of being able to work things out.
4) Use “I” statements
If someone does or says something and you have a specific reaction to it, that’s real. If you judge someone, make a generalization about them, or accuse them of something, not only is it not “true” (it’s just your opinion) it will most likely trigger a defensive response from them. It’s important to own your feedback as yours, not speak it like the “truth.” Using “I” statements allows you to speak from a place of truth, ideally without blame, judgment, or self-righteousness.
5) Go for a win-win
The only real way to have a conflict resolved authentically is if it’s a true win-win for everyone involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each person gets his or her way. It does, however, mean that everyone gets heard, honored, and listened to. And, when and if possible — it’s important to make compromises that leave everyone empowered and in partnership.
6) Acknowledge others
Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a situation that involves lots of people, acknowledgment is essential to our ability to engage in productive conflict and to be able to resolve it in an authentic and effective way. Thank the other people involved in the hard conversation and for being willing to engage. Thank them for speaking their truth.
7) Get support and have compassion for yourself in the process
Often these difficult conversations and situations bring up fear and cut to the core of your most vulnerable insecurities. Because of this, it’s important to reach out to others for authentic support (not agreement) who can help both in a practical and emotional sense. It’s also important to have compassion with yourself as you attempt to engage in these difficult conversations.
While these conversations aren’t usually all that fun or enjoyable, they are necessary and essential to your ability to build trust, navigate the complexity of work and life, and create the kind of relationships, families, and teams you truly want.
What can you do right now to have any difficult conversations you have been avoiding in a healthy and authentic way? What support do you need? Leave a comment about this below.