Thursday, March 19, 2009

Difficult Conversations

So, I get asked “How do I approach this difficult conversation?” all the time. Might be about…

…reconciling an estranged relationship…
…broaching a taboo or sensitive subject…
…bringing “bad news”…
…confronting toxic behavior…

Yuck. Wouldn’t it be nice if things just worked out? Well, they do. But, not without some effort. Here’s the structure that I have found works well.

The underlying principle here is to honor your own emotions without being driven by them. In other words, if you’re angry, go beat up a pillow or run some stairs before engaging in the conversation. If you’re fearful, step into a detached position and ask yourself, “what’s really going on here?” and get clean with the fear. And if you’re sad then cry, and then go do something nice for yourself. Once your own emotional wave has begun to subside, you are ready to engage. And, it’s always respectful to ask for permission… “I’d like to bring up a difficult topic. Is now a good time for you?”

Data: Start with the facts in a very “matter of fact” way. Facts are those things that a video camera could record. It’s evidence in the courtroom. And, data is the only thing where agreement is necessary in a difficult conversation.

Story: Figure out the “story you make up” from the relevant set of facts. We all do this, so just own it. For example, “When you show up late, I make up a story that you think I am un-important.”

Emotion: Share your emotional experience, remembering it is best to be able to talk about your emotions as opposed to being driven by them. “I felt angry, and a little afraid.”

Your Part: Consider how you have contributed to the issue and own it too. For example, “I recognize that I could have been clearer about our expected start time.”

Want: Ask yourself what it is you really want for yourself in this conversation. If you are trying to control someone else, you might first want to consider what fear is driving you into a control position and then consider what it is you really want. Often times, what we really want is to just get something off our chest, or to clear the air because our desire is for a clean and authentic relationship.

No matter how someone receives all of this, it’s all your stuff. You are owning yourself and taking 100% responsibility for your emotions, what you make a set of facts mean, your part in the issue, and what you want. All of those are inarguable. No one can tell you “you don’t feel that way”. Sometimes we call these inarguable truths.

So, this is more than a simple post. Frankly, getting clear on this structure and making it a part of my ongoing communication style has changed my life. If you’d like more writing on the topic, post a comment or send me a note ( asking for “Staying the Course when Things Get Tough.”