Communication: how to hold difficult conversations safely

We need to talk...

What do you think when someone says to you: “We need to talk”? Does this sentence make you tense up, or do you remain relaxed and curious about what the other person wants to say to you?

We are not asking you this question for no reason. Rather, the words “We need to talk” are probably the most famous introduction to a conversation that could trigger multiple emotions and thoughts in your head. This phrase could be seen as a sort of trigger for internal reactions, from curiosity through fear to anticipation. It may not always herald negative news, of course, but the sentence usually makes us assume the worst.

Difficult conversations are a part of life, whether we like it or not. They may occur in the private or professional context and most of us find them hard. To be successful, such conversations require sensitivity, emotional intelligence and effective communication strategies. They can be challenging and stressful. How do you handle difficult conversations? Do they distress you, make you feel insecure, maybe even overwhelmed?

In this article we will give you some tips that could help you to hold difficult conversations safely and confidently.

What are difficult conversations?

“Difficult conversations” refers to communication situations that are challenging or demanding, either emotionally or in terms of content. Such conversations can be difficult on several levels:

  • Emotional strain: Conversations involving strong emotions like anger, grief, fear or frustration can often be difficult. The emotional intensity may impair your ability to communicate clearly.
  • Conflicts and differences of opinion: Conversations dealing with differences of opinion, conflicts or unresolved issues can be difficult. You will need to be patient, understanding and ready to compromise to cope with different points of view.
  • Unpleasant topics: Topics seen as unpleasant, delicate or taboo can make conversations difficult. Such conversations require sensitivity and the ability to communicate respectfully and perceptively.
  • Important decisions: Conversations involving important decisions, changes or ramifications could also be perceived as difficult. The possible effects of these decisions could create tension.
  • Ambiguities or uncertainties: If the situation or expectations are ambiguous, this can result in insecurity and make the conversation more difficult. Clarity and transparency are important as they make these conversations easier.
  • Power imbalances: Conversations between people with differing positions of power can be hard, because the power disparity can affect the communication dynamics.
  • Hurt feelings: When previously hurt feelings or misunderstandings are unresolved, they can impede communication. Restoring trust and understanding is crucial in such cases.
  • Time limits: Conversations held under time pressure or that must be held rapidly can be difficult as there is less space for reflection and careful communication.

Overall, a conversation may be seen as difficult if it challenges the ability to communicate effectively, resolve conflict and find solutions. Difficult conversations often require particular thoughtfulness, patience and the use of specific communication techniques to be concluded successfully.

Communication techniques

  1. Preparation is key to success: Regardless of whether your conversation is personal or professional, thorough preparation is essential. Make sure in advance that you’re clear about your aims for and expectations from the conversation. Gather relevant information and consider possible solutions – this will help you to appear competent and self-aware. You can also make a note of the most important things and take your notes to the conversation with you, if this will make you feel more secure in the situation. If it will help, you could also rehearse the conversation in advance with someone you trust.
  2. Active listening: Active listening is extremely important during the conversation. Show genuine interest in the views and feelings of the other person. Listen attentively and without interrupting. Repeat what you have heard to make sure that you have understood everything correctly. These 10 tips for active listening will give you further advice about how to engage in conversation with the other person.
  3. Show empathy: Show compassion and understanding for the other person’s perspective. Express recognition for the other person’s feelings, even when you disagree with them.
  4. I-statements: Express your feelings, thoughts, reservations and worries with “I-statements” rather than with accusations and recriminations. This requires a little practice, but is still a very effective way of tackling difficult conversations successfully.
  5. Ask questions: You can ask open questions for clarification and to direct the course of the conversation. This means questions that cannot be answered just with “yes” or “no”. They begin with question words such as “what”, “when”, “why”, “where” or “which” and so are sometimes called wh-questions. Open questions require detailed answers and result in more in-depth discussions.
  6. Paraphrase and summarise: Repeat what the other person says in your own words to make sure that you have understood everything correctly. Summarising helps to structure the conversation.
  7. Emphasise common interests: Identify common interests or goals to create a basis for finding a solution together. Focus on what you want to achieve together.
  8. Take breaks: When emotions flare up, it can sometimes be helpful to take a short break to calm down and mull things over before resuming the conversation.
  9. Pay attention to body language: Be aware of both your own body language and the other person’s. An open posture, eye contact and respectful gestures will contribute to a positive atmosphere for your conversation.
  10. Be solution-oriented: Focus on solving the problem and not on apportioning blame. Search for compromises and win-win situations.

Conclusion

Difficult conversations can be challenging, but with the right techniques and a positive attitude, they can be valuable opportunities for growth and finding solutions. By concentrating on thorough preparation, active listening, clear communication, empathy and constructive conflict resolution, you can be successful in both personal and professional conversations. You can find more information about the subject under our “Communication” heading.

 

References
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Schwierige Gespräche: Wie man sie führt und warum sie scheitern. Fischer Taschenbuch.
Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press.
Röhner, J. & Schütz, A. (2016). Psychologie der Kommunikation. (2nd edition). Wiesbaden: Springer.
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press.
Ury, W. L., Fisher, R., & Patton, B. (2012). Das Harvard-Konzept: Der Klassiker der Verhandlungstechnik. Fischer Taschenbuch.

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