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How to Have a Difficult Conversation without Losing Your Nerve

Nobody likes the potential for conflict, but learning how to have a difficult conversation will steer you towards a positive outcome.

Think back to the last time you had a conversation with someone that you were dreading. You probably built it up in your mind to epic proportions. Then, you lost your nerve at the last minute and didn’t end up going through with it. If this sounds familiar, learn how to have a difficult conversation and follow through.

Knowing how to navigate a difficult conversation isn’t something that people are just born knowing how to do. It takes time, patience, and understanding to be able to have these types of conversations and achieve a positive outcome.

Of course, there is the risk of possible conflict. Sometimes people don’t like to be on the receiving end of these types of conversations either!

[Read: The 6 main reasons why people hate confrontation]

How to have a difficult conversation and follow through without faltering

If you want to overcome challenges, you should know the eleven main steps which help you learn how to have a difficult conversation… without backing out at the last minute.

#1 Choose the right moment. The first step in how to have a difficult conversation is knowing the right time to do it. Don’t attempt a tough conversation if the person you need to talk to seems stressed, tired, angry about something else, not feeling well, or generally having a bad day.

This will simply lead to a poor outcome. If that’s the case, wait until another day. You’ll probably find everything works out far better. [Read: How to resolve conflict and cut out the drama]

#2 Don’t attempt the conversation with other people around. Difficult conversations need to be conducted in private. Don’t attempt to have the conversation if there are other people in the room, or if there is a likelihood that someone will walk in and interrupt you. As with the last point, make sure you pick your moment, and not when others are in earshot.

#3 Never say “we need to talk.” Uttering these words means the other person is going to quickly jump on the defensive and wonder what the problem is.

When learning how to have a difficult conversation, never set the tone in a negative way, just launch into it in a natural and easy-going way. Think back to the last time you heard “we need to talk.” You probably panicked and wondered what was going to come next! [Read: How to confront someone when you loathe uncomfortable interactions]

#4 Think about what you want to say beforehand. This doesn’t mean writing down summary points and having flash cards but know what you want to say and have the main points set in your mind. If you don’t think about it before, you’re going to forget to say something important.

Then, you’ll end up going back over a conversation that was already difficult enough. Don’t script it out, but know how you’re going to start and what you actually want to say to them. [Read: How to stop being passive aggressive and explain yourself clearly]

#5 Don’t expect the conversation to go a certain way. If you go into the conversation expecting it to flow in a particular direction, you’re going to be caught off guard when it doesn’t. Have your main points in your mind and just go with the flow, seeing where the conversation takes you.

#6 Watch your body language. Your body language also speaks for you, so make sure that its agreeing with what you’re actually saying! Avoid defensive body language, such as sitting with your legs or arms crossed, fidgeting, or avoiding eye contact.

Be relaxed, mirror their position, and make sure that you maintain eye contact. The wrong kind of body language can easily cause you to come over as confrontational. [Read: How to develop empathy and master the art of growing a real heart]

#7 Be direct, don’t “go around the houses.” Whatever you want to say, make sure you say it and do it in a way which isn’t going to cause confusion or add unnecessary word count to the conversation!

There is nothing worse than listening to someone babble on, waiting for them to get to the actual point. This isn’t how to have a difficult conversation! Make the point of the conversation known at the very start. Then, outline your points from there.

#8 Choose your language and tone carefully. Words can easily take on a different meaning when you add a specific tone to them, e.g. sarcasm. Make sure that you don’t intentionally choose sentences full of big and complicated words. You’ll make the other person feel inadequate or confused. Just keep it simple, but not too simple! You don’t want to be condescending either. [Read: How to be dominant and be the real alpha without trying too hard]

#9 See the other person’s side. This is a conversation, not a lecture. The person you’re talking to will have input too. Make sure that you do your best to see their side of things and understand their point of view.

Part of learning how to have a difficult conversation is understanding that your side might not be 100% right. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your point across, but understand that they have their point too.

#10 Listen! Make sure that you sit and listen to what they’re saying. Most people think they know how to listen, but in truth they don’t. It’s not just about the words the other person is saying, it’s about picking up on non-verbal cues too, such as tone of voice, body language, etc.

Listen to everything and really understand what is being communicated to you. This is one of the main points you need to cover when learning how to have a difficult conversation. [Read: Do you understand and embody the 15 qualities of a good person?]

#11 Work together to achieve a positive outcome. Difficult conversations don’t have to be confrontational or upsetting, they can be constructive and progressive, too. You can work together to ensure that the conversation comes to a suitable and positive point. Agree that yes, this topic is a little awkward or difficult, but it needs to be discussed. Approaching it in the right way, on both sides, will help you do this.

Nobody likes difficult conversations. Don’t feel as though you’re failing if you simply don’t want to approach a particular subject with someone. But sometimes things just need to be said. Be brave and just go for it. [Read: How to deal with bullies – 13 grownup ways to confront mean people]

By understanding the right way to approach this type of situation, you avoid losing your nerve at the last minute, and you are far less likely to offend or upset the person you need to speak to. This gives you a great opportunity to work out a situation that is causing difficulties for you both, whatever it may be.

Remember that conversations are two way things. Listen and take on their point of view as much as you communicate your own. You may not be right. Perhaps they have something they want to say that is far more enlightening than the point you’re trying to get across.

[Read: How to be an adult: 15 mature ways to handle situations like a grown up]

Learning how to have a difficult conversation is as much about preparation as it is about the actual moment. However, be prepared to go with the flow and pick the right moment for the conversation. 

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