"Can we talk?" Usually whenever I hear that question, or a form of that question, my stomach drops, I replay recent actions and interactions in my head trying to pinpoint where the request is stemming from, and a huge lump forms in my throat. I'm not a person who enjoys conflict, but I'm also not afraid of it and would prefer to address elephants in the room and approach things head on. But still, someone's request to "talk" is usually code for we're about to have a difficult conversation and invokes this immediate paralyzing reaction. I, by no means, am an expert in them and nor would I like to be, but I would like to become better about having difficult conversations.
I have had more difficult conversations this week than I have had in a long time. Some have turned out better than expected while others really cut me to the core and drained me of my energy. Though some were initiated by me, not all of them were my choice. A few of the difficult conversations from this week were in my professional life, a few were in my personal life, and a few were internal ones that I was having with myself. Here are a few things that I've learned to help me have better difficult conversations:
Take your time
Don't rush the conversation. If there is a time crunch, ask for another time to follow up or for a different method to follow up. I'm the type of person where I need time to digest a conversation for me to think about next steps or clarifying questions or a counterpoint to clear up a misunderstanding. If that's your style as well, share that. I'll sometimes say something along the lines of, "I need some time to digest this. Can I follow up with you tomorrow?" Sometimes the shock of the initial conversation or the news that you're receiving can make you tunnel visioned or leave you numb where you aren't able to think clearly.
Whether you've initiated the conversation or someone has asked you to have one, ask questions to clarify what's being shared so you understand it. Sometimes the issue at hand isn't the real problem and asking questions can help get to the root of the issue. Asking questions, and rephrasing what you're hearing to make sure you understand what's being shared, can help both people walk away with clarity as well as being on the same page. I've also found that asking someone what they mean or what they'd like to happen as a result of the conversation can be helpful. Is it that they're talking to you because they'd like to see a change in behavior or a change in direction or something was bothering them and they wanted to share feedback. This will help you also understand where they're coming from. By asking questions such as, "What do you want?" or "Where do we go from here?" it can set clear next steps or solutions.
Don't take it (too) personally
Easier said than done, I know. I truly believe that people have good intentions and are not malicious. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made and difficult conversations is part of that decision-making. We can't always win at everything that we do and our actions don't always reflect our intentions. If anything, having a conversation shows consideration and respect for your feelings. Whether it's being turned down for a job, or ending a relationship, or addressing an instance where feelings were hurt, it's much easier to avoid a conversation and deliver the news in an impersonal way. Or worse, not have a conversation at all, change your behavior and hope the other person will get the hint. Think about it from the other person's perspective and intentions and give them the benefit of the doubt. More often than not, the way someone treats you has more to do with them than it has to do with you.
Difficult conversations are exactly that: hard because they're uncomfortable and an exchange of ideas, thoughts and feelings between two or more parties. But the only way we grow is through being uncomfortable. And if you don't share what you're thinking, you can't expect someone to know what you mean. While they may not always go as planned (they could go better!), you're better off having a difficult conversation than not having one at all. So the next time someone asks, "Can we talk?", take a deep breath, leave your ego at the door, and ready yourself. That's what I'm working towards.