Knowing how to relate well with other people is central to our existence. The skill of navigating difficult conversations has become really important for success at work and at home – I know, my daughter is thirteen! It’s natural and normal to want to avoid having difficult conversations because relationships with family, colleagues at work, and friends are deeply important. But learning how to have difficult conversations at work or in a personal relationship can boost your self confidence, increase your self-awareness, and the sense of being in control of your life.

But what’s stops us from having that difficult conversation we know we should have? We fear the consequences of having a difficult conversation. Fear of harming the other, fear of harming ourselves, fear of losing the person we love or the consideration of a boss we want to please, a promotion, etc.. Fear can make us act out of character. So if we are already uncomfortable about having this conversation in the first place, then we overlay fear into the situation – it’s not surprising that so many conversations often go wrong.


What happens to us when we are frightened?

Fear is there to protect us against perceived threat to our integrity or existence. What happens when our “thinking” brain tells our “emotional” brain that we perceive ourselves threatened? Fear reaction starts in the brain as it becomes hyper alert and spreads through the body to make adjustments for either “flight” or “fight”. Pupils dilate, breathing accelerates, heart rate and blood pressure rise, and blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival slow down.

Our conscious, rational, thinking brain becomes secondary to our emotional brain that may need to make us fight or run away very soon. People can describe a “red mist”, or “not being themselves” or “snapping” in these situations. That’s the fear response kicking in to keep you alive.

Added to this, we very often learn fear through personal experiences. So if you have previously been part of a “difficult conversation”, or seen other people having a “difficult conversation”, this can also increase your fear. And lastly, humans also learn through instruction – learn from the spoken word or notes. For example, if a sign says the dog is dangerous, proximity to the dog could trigger a fear response. So even calling the encounter a “difficult conversation” could trigger a fear response!


How can we deal with this?

When our bodies are like this, it’s very hard to have a rational and calm conversation. Our sense of control seems – well out of control! So to be able to control our responses and reactions, we need to recognise what is and isn’t a real threat. Realise we can relabel the encounter as an experience and ultimately be back in a place where we feel in control. If we overcome the initial “fight or flight” rush, we can be left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.

There’s more we can do to further our feeling of being in control, and so reduce the natural tendency to fear to conversation. Here are my top tips for having a difficult conversation, by reducing your fear and grabbing back control:

  • It’s not helpful for one person to be physically “above” or “below” others, stay at about the same eye level either seated or standing
  • Speak directly to the other person(s) and don’t assume their intent.
  • Speak as calmly in a matter-of-fact tone as possible. This maximises the chances that others will hear the content of your message, rather than fixate on your emotions.
  • Avoid finger-pointing, whether blaming or literally pointing fingers.This tends to make the other person(s) feel that he or she is being lectured or put down.
  • Avoid name-calling, yelling, screaming, swearing, put-downs, insults, or threats (emotional or physical). When any of these happen, the only thing other people hear is anger and attack.
  • Be as clear as possible and use specific examples. Avoid the words “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing.”
  • When the other person is speaking, consciously listen to what he or she has to say with the intent of hearing it.
  • Make sure you understand what the other person has said before you respond. If you’re not sure what he or she said or meant, ask for clarification.
  • Approach the conversation with openness and an interest in problem solving, rather than needing to be “right.”
  • Keep to the topic at hand. Focus on the topic of this conversation.
  • Do not walk away or leave the conversation without the other person’s agreement. Allow for the possibility of time-outs.
  • Take responsibility for feeling the way you do, rather than blaming the other person. Use “I” statements – as in, “I feel…”