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How to Rock Tough Conversations

How to Rock Tough Conversations

Tough conversations can be very stressful, especially when you’re the one messenger of the bad news. However, it is impossible to avoid all tough conversations. They are somewhat evident in life. At some point or another you will need to have a tough conversation with your colleague, friend, family member, or partner. Therefore, it is better to prepare yourself for handling these conversations with less anxiety and more game. In this article, I hope to share with you the tips and tricks I gathered to smooth'en these stressful moments.

Harvard Business Review’s book on communication contains an article specifically focusing on dealing with stressful conversations in particular. This article by Weeks, identifies three different types:

“I have bad news for you”

This type of conversation includes vocalizing criticism, delivering bad news, or invoking feedback. The best way to start a conversation like this is to honor your partner. Here, it is best practice to start by acknowledging your own contribution to the problem. It is of great essence to conversation off on a good note, as this increases the chances of a successful continuation. Whatever you do, make sure that you deliver the difficult message without provoking the other.

“What’s going on here?”

The type of conversation Weeks refers to here, are those conversations that become increasingly tense. The ones where you go, “where and when did this escalate so quickly?!”. In these cases, it is crucial that you show acceptance towards the perceptions of your partner and are clear about your intentions. The trick is to turn the conversation into agreement, rather than confrontation.

I myself have to admit that this happens to me quite a lot. You start of a conversation like a happy bunny and before you know it, you walk into this scary dark tunnel. That is the moment you ask yourself, “what is going on here?!”. Most of the time I just continue the conversation trying to ignore the intensifying situation. After reading this article, I have noted to start showing more acceptance and making my intentions clearer as I have noticed the positive effects. Regardless of whether I initiated the conversation or not, as these situations can actually occur either way.  

“You are attacking me”

When your interlocutor becomes more and more aggressive in his communication, Weeks’ tip is to fight the tactics rather than the person. It is important to name the tactic used in order to neutralize it. Think of tactics such as suggestive and ironic gestures or mimics or making unnecessary hurtful comments. This way you can avoid becoming offended or intimidated.

Well, unfortunately this has happened to me quite a few times at work. People raised their voices in meetings and comments were made. Obviously, I was instantly offended and that did not necessarily contribute to neutralizing the situation there. After those few times, I definitely learned to keep my calm and stay neutral. Now, those meetings with those same people never get to that same tense level.

Preparation tips

Furthermore, Weeks provides some great preparation tips for stressful conversations:

  • Identifying your weaknesses to certain people and situations, in order to be prepared. I for one know that I am weaker when I am hungry, I get HANGRY. Another one of my weaknesses is that I can get pretty intimidated by certain people, which makes me shut down completely. Those that know me well won’t believe this, but I can barely say a word in those situations. I now try to power pose before having these type of conversations with people that intimidate me more than usual.
  • Improving your response by becoming aware of your reactions when feeling vulnerable. I have learned a lot about myself when I started working. When you are working together with other students and are not getting paid, your reaction is nowhere near as important as it is in the workplace. You basically HAVE to act appropriate at work. If you are not feeling well to begin with and someone is irritating you, become aware. Rationalize and all will be well!
  • Making sure your phrasing is neutral and free from emotional charge, to communicate in a non-threatening way. This one is very important. Trust me when I say that it is not handy to say, “you don’t get it, it is like so and so…”. Make sure the other doesn’t feel threatened in anyway, as it is you who has to clean up the mess.

What are your thoughts on dealing with tough conversations? Will you take these methods into account next time you are end up in such a stressful situation? Please do share in the comment section below.   

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