Communication is a breeze when there's nothing to talk about. Small talk may bore you, but let's face it, you'd rather spend a whole day shooting the breeze than 10 minutes talking about something that makes you uneasy.
No one likes to ask for a raise or fire someone. It's no picnic to tell your spouse that you're not happy in the relationship or explain to customers that they can't have something they want. But these are the conversations that matter. They are the ones on which our personal and professional relationships depend, so we'd better get them right.
There's no road map for uncomfortable conversations, but there are a few rules to follow that can make the process a lot easier. By using these three rules, you will find those awkward moments less painful than you fear.
Rule No. 1: Give up the idea that you're right. Most problems between people aren't about facts, they're about perceptions. Trying to convince someone that you are right clouds the real problem and prevents resolution.
Before having a difficult conversation, remind yourself that you have two goals: to understand their perceptions and to make your perceptions understood. Try to stand in their shoes and empathize with how they feel about the situation. If you're not sure how to do this, go back to a past article on active listening, and remember that listening requires both verbal and non-verbal communication.
Rule No. 2: Script it. We've all wished in hindsight that we had said (or had not said) something in a difficult conversation. You'll remember from past articles that feelings of anxiety induce what's called the stress response. The response clouds our judgment and prevents us from communicating clearly.
There are three things you need to consider when you're scripting: What, when and where. Start by planning the words you want to use. You can also probably figure out how the person is going to respond. The conversation won't go exactly as planned, but having a sense of the discussion before it happens will give you confidence and guidance.
If you've ever heard the PIP-CIP rule, you'll know exactly where to have the conversation. PIP-CIP stands for praise in public; criticize in private. Always get the person alone to keep egos at bay.
When should you have the conversation? Right away. There's no great time for an uncomfortable discussion, so the faster you take care of it the better. Difficult conversations are like low-grade infections: If you don't take care of them immediately, they usually get worse. So don't procrastinate.
Rule No. 3: Put the ball in their court. We often turn difficult conversations into monologues. The other person may shut down out of fear or anger, and leave us feeling more frustrated than when we began. When you decide to take the initiative, you have the power. So make sure you share that power by soliciting feedback. How do you do that? Open-ended questions. You can say what you think and feel, but always check in with people because their perceptions will most likely differ from yours.
So, the next time you have a conversation you're dreading, start by giving up ideas of right or wrong, then script what you plan to say, and always put the ball in their court during the conversation. And remember that the most important thing you can do with an uncomfortable conversation is to have it.