What Makes Difficult Conversations Difficult

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Some conversations are much harder to have than others. I have quite a few books on communication and some specifically on difficult conversations, but I had not quite thought of exactly why this is so. Then, listening to Seth Godin this morning, he hit it right on the head by saying that some conversations are more difficult than others because in the difficult ones we want two things, not one.

…we want someone to change and we want them to like it; we want someone to stop doing something and we want them to not be mad at us; we want someone to change their behaviour and we still want them to be our friend…”

Seth Godin on Akimbo – Difficult Conversations

Seth has some good suggestions on how to look at these conversations differently (and the podcast explains them well), but my sense of it is that we need to be clear on what our goal of having this difficult conversation is and why it is important for us to have it. When we are clear on this what and why it will be easier for us to move into this difficult conversation because we are removing, or at least lessening our attachment to, our secondary goal (sometimes called a competing commitment).

It is important to understand this inner conflict more. The first part of these “two things” is behavioural: we want something to be different. The second part is interpersonal or emotional: we want to preserve a relationship or not feel bad. We want the first part because of some boundary that has been crossed that is important to us. Our concern over the “second thing” is because we either are concerned about the relationship to the other person will be harmed or we are worried there might be some backlash that will harm us (more specifically hurt our feelings or ego).

Once we get clear what it is we need and why it is important to do the “first thing” (set the boundary), it should be easier for us to realize that the “second thing” is more of a distorted thought rooted in fear. If we handle the “first thing” in the difficult conversation well – be clear, concise, and not emotionally reactive – we will be less attached to the outcome of how another responds to our concerns. Also, it may occur to us that we may be not jeopardizing a relationship by bringing this up, but honouring or strengthening it. You obviously care enough to bring it up, so the other person may recognize and appreciate this.

It is never easy to have difficult conversations, but we need to be mindful to not let our own fears muddy our perception of them. By dispassionately working to resolve conflict we can, funny enough, tend to have less of it, both with others and within ourselves.