We face difficult conversations every day. They can be with our children, our parents, family members and spouses; with colleagues, employees and with the boss; with friends and neighbors; with tenants, landlords, business partners, and in the sports team. Sometimes these conversations are about the “big” issues of race, religion, gender and politics. More often than not they are about common everyday problems.

At work, conversations involving feedback on poor performance are difficult for both managers and employees. When we share open plan office space we argue over the background music and how loudly people talk and laugh. In families, conversations about disciplining children and how household chores should be shared are often difficult. Neighbors get into damaging arguments about dogs, noise and parking problems, then go to court, or move house. Most of us wish we could avoid the often difficult conversations about money with our bank managers, business partners or spouses, and sometimes with our children and siblings.

We avoid these conversations for as long as we can because we know they are likely to involve heated argument, blame or accusation and often end up in emotional outbursts of tears or anger. It’s just not safe to get into them! The stakes are high. We might make fools of ourselves, damage a relationship irreparably, or make it impossible to work constructively with someone ever again. At the same time most of us realize that swinging from avoidance into emotional argument and back again is not good in any relationship.

We can start to improve the situation by recognizing some of the mistakes that can make difficult conversations disastrous. Here are four of the most common.

1. You talk too much

Often when faced with a difficult conversation we talk around it, not being specific, trying to be polite, hoping the other person will somehow pick up the meaning. If you use lots of words however, it is more likely that you will say something exaggerated or accusing and provoke a defensive reaction. Rather decide exactly what you need to say, then choose the most simple way of saying it. The fewer words you use to open a conversation and explain the problem as you see it, the safer it is.

2. You think you know all the facts

We are usually so convinced that we’ve got all the facts and that they are the right facts, we go into a conversation primarily to get the other person to agree with us. “If I can just make them see…”, we say to ourselves. The more they resist, perhaps trying to offer another viewpoint, the harder we push. You rarely, if ever, know all the facts in a complex conversation, so you have to go into the conversation prepared to listen to and consider the other person’s viewpoint.

3. You blame the other person

It is tempting to see every problem as the other person’s fault. If THEY would perform to the agreed standards; if THEY would just stick to the rules; if THEY would do what they promised…there wouldn’t be a problem. The fact is that if you are part of the situation, you are in some way also part of the problem. Are you sure you made your instructions clear? Did you take time to obtain commitment from everyone? Did you somehow get in the way of the problem being solved? You need to consider how you may be as much part of the problem as anyone else.

4. You go straight to action

It is tempting to go straight into discussion of a solution to the problem, so you can end a difficult conversation quickly. Don’t! Everyone’s view needs to be heard, and everyone needs to know that they have been heard. If you push too quickly for your own solution it is likely that others will not be committed to the outcome.

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