Difficult Conversations – Go Deep

Whenever Neil and I have a difficult conversation it usually stems from concerns about money (spending habits and work/life balance), duties (parenting, house jobs), or meaning (for example, planning means “ahead of time” to me and “spontaneity” to him). Over the years we have gotten much better about when, how and why we have these conversations. We also know more about what triggers each of us, what happens physiologically when we are triggered – both to ourselves and to the other person – and how long we have to wait until the trigger subsides and we can regain our composure enough to complete the conversation civilly.

This has taken time, lots of education, therapy, post mortems about previous ‘conversations’ and a committed practice to be in a relationship that is generative (meaning giving life to a new, more supportive pattern of behavior that we create together). What I offer here in this post and at the next Leadership Presence session on May 30th is a recipe on how to develop your ability to be present, connected and less anxious in difficult conversations. This post will offer a structure to follow. At the leadership session you will spend four hours diving into this structure to pinpoint areas of growth for you and leave with a centered way to be present in difficult conversations.

To be successful in a difficult conversation you have to know clearly and concisely what is important to you, while being present and listening to what is important to the other person, responding to the other without blame or projection and in a way that helps bring clarity to the situation being discussed. Sounds like a lot more than simply conveying your point, eh? No wonder many people avoid these conversations!

Where people run into trouble, Neil and I included, is when a few helpful structures for successful difficult conversations get ignored. Those are: timing, knowing yourself, relationship specific ground rules and respect for the other person.

Timing is essential to success on many levels. And difficult conversations take time. When we are instinctively compelled to address a behavior or topic and then act on our compulsion, it is usually the wrong time to have the conversation. Yet many of us react by immediately offering feedback to the other in the heat of the moment. This can be helpful for children under three but for anyone older, it pretty much pisses them off!

Not only do you have to choose the right moment to broach the subject, but you have to be prepared for an uncertain length of time as the conversation could be quick or really long. In the world today time is a commodity. There is simply not enough of it. It doesn’t feel like it, but it is a choice to be constantly busy. Choosing to drop into a conversation can open you up to solutions you couldn’t conceive of on your own.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about timing:

  • When is the best time for you to have a challenging conversation? Some people find the morning the best time for these conversations. For others over a long dinner works best, maybe driving in the car or in the evening after the day has settled. Timing is different for all of us and vital to success.
  • When is the best time for the other person?
  • How much time do I allot for these conversation? Having a frame of time in mind can help us settle into the conversation instead of wondering every few minutes when we can leave.

Know yourself. This is the second structure to success in all difficult conversations and foundational for a solid Leadership Presence. Being able to stay present in a difficult conversation will be challenging if you don’t understand your patterns of behavior when you get triggered.

A ‘trigger’ is a person or situation that when present or broached drops you into our reactive habitual mode of behavior. When triggered you lose the ability to choose your reaction. Your physiology chooses for you. This choice is based on years of practicing a behavior that you learned from your primary caregivers. This automatic reaction was designed to take care of your safety, belonging or dignity. You often do not know how you got this pattern and you feel as though you cannot change it; it is just you. Modern brain research tells us that these behavioral patterns are malleable with practice, yet they live in our brain, as well as the tissues of our body, and are hard to totally eradicate! In order to make a different choice we have to repeatedly practice a new behavior.

To understand yourself better, consider these questions:

  • How do you react under pressure? A good place to start pondering this question is to think back on conversations about money, duty or meaning that you have had with your employer, parent, partner or child. These people and subjects can often facilitate a trigger response.
  • What is your strategy for handling a difficult conversation? Do you avoid? Do you try to win? Do you want it over quickly? Do you let the other person have their way? Do you over-complicate the conversation? We all have different ways of managing our anxiety in difficult conversations, which can be in opposition to the other person.
  • What do you do while in the conversation? In the past, unless in a car, I would make myself very busy by cleaning or straightening during the conversation to distract myself. What are your patterns?
  • What examples of difficult conversations did you grow up with? This can often tell you a lot about how you handle these conversations.

Relationship specific ground rules. These are very helpful if you have conversations with a person regularly or if they have the opportunity to evaluate you. Here you can shape the conversation by creating boundaries about timing (when and length), restricting the subject matter (“in this conversation we can talk about money but not about sex”), revealing some of your growth areas – like which ones are available for feedback and which ones are not, generative rules – like sharing your intention, what does it mean when you need a break , and conversation structures – like active listening and paraphrasing.

Here are some ideas for shaping your ground rules conversation:

  • What is important for you to note or include in order to stay engaged in the conversation?
  • What subject matter is not up for discussion?
  • What is your intention?
  • What happens when you get triggered?
  • What feedback do you want during the conversation (or at other times)?

Be respectful of the person. There are some conversations people can have and some they cannot. My kids cannot sit through a lengthy conversation about how we want to be in relationship. My parents, through more now than in the past, are not generally interested in the meta-conversation surrounding their daily life. My husband will never be interested in a planning conversation if the event is more than three months away. These things I know.

Here are some questions for assessing the person before we have the conversation:

  • Are you assessing yourself out of a conversation? If you tend to avoid difficult conversations, then you probably are. Sometimes we do not give people credit for the conversations they are able to have or our timing has been off in the past and subsequently the conversations have been unsatisfying. I know that I can talk with my daughter at night, who is now old enough to stay up late and conceptualize events in the past or future, about subjects that cannot be broached during the day. I only realized this through experimentation. Be bold, but respectful.
  • Are you expecting too much from one conversation?
  • Do they have the skills and ability to have this conversation?
  • Do they need prep time before I broach this subject?
  • Is this conversation more about you than them? This one can be tricky. You may need some help deciphering your intent. Sometimes we want other people to solve something for us, but do not realize this is our underlying intention. For example, I often want to ‘talk’ with Neil about the need to plan earlier for certain trips. This is more about me wanting to squelch my anxiety through early planning than about him needing to do something (duty) different.

In life difficult conversations happen. And they are complicated. Even so, if we avoid them we give up on many possibilities for growth that we may not have considered. Part of developing our Leadership Presence is to understand how we show up when challenged, what triggers us, and build enough bandwidth to be present with another. This takes dedication and focused practice. If you are scared or frustrated, sad or excited, and feel like you need a guide, reach out for help. Invite perspective. We have likely travelled the same path and can offer insight to make your conversations and relationships more satisfying.