“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
(Tim Ferriss, Author of The 4-Hour Workweek)
Nobody likes difficult conversations. They are stressful, emotionally charged, impossible to predict.
And because of that, it can be really tempting to try and avoid them.
That’s what most people do, why shouldn’t it work for us, too?
In fact, though, learning when and how to assert yourself and have an uncomfortable conversation is one of the most important social skills you can have – and will really benefit your overall quality of life.
These sorts of conversations can take many forms. Maybe you’ve noticed you’re always the one being piled on at work while others shirk their duties. Been disrespected in a personal relationship. Or left bothered by behaviour that simply goes against your personal values and expectations.
Whatever it is, you can bet your bottom dollar that the situation isn’t going to change before you speak up and do something about it.
Having been through some difficult conversations of my own in recent weeks, here are my guidelines on how best to approach it. I have to say, it is not an easy skill – I myself have fallen short on many an occasion – but it really is worth thinking about and consciously working on!
1. Do it in person
If you’re intending to have a difficult conversation with somebody – calling them out for unacceptable behaviour, quitting a job, ending a relationship – that person really deserves to be told in person. In my experience, face to face is much more direct and likely to lead to an amicable outcome than hiding behind the anonymity of email or messaging, which leads only to misunderstanding, frustration, and crossed wires.
2. Don’t wait
Once you’ve made a decision to have a conversation, do all you can to arrange it as soon as possible. You don’t want to have an issue distracting and gnawing away at you when you are powerless to do anything about it; and, in fact, the conversation itself is almost always far easier than the build-up to it. So do yourself a favour, and seize the initiative.
3. Stay cool, calm, and collected
While a difficult conversation is obviously going to revolve around an issue that has bothered you, this is not the time to be getting overly emotional or unleashing anger and resentment if you can possibly avoid it. The goal is to lay out your thinking and the rationale for what you are saying in as clear a manner as possible. It may well be that the other party gets emotional themselves, or else refuses to accept what you are saying; in such an instance, you must weigh up for yourself whether this is something you can live with or not. Conversely, it is important to listen carefully to what the other party has to say as well – perhaps you may have misunderstood a situation yourself, in which case you must be ready to acknowledge that and accept the new situation.
Ultimately, learning how to have difficult conversations is about learning how to communicate honestly and openly – in the understanding that this is the only way that problems are addressed, misunderstandings cleared up, and feelings aired.
Be in no doubt, this is our responsibility, and our responsibility alone. If there is something that is really bothering us in our lives, we need to learn to be able to express it clearly and directly with sensitivity and skill, thereby either resolving the issue or removing ourselves from the situation. Only then can we lead the sort of life we want and deserve.
Cambridge graduate. Writer and thinker. Life enthusiast.