Most people want to avoid conflict and potentially stressful situations – this is human nature. People often find it easier to avoid communicating something that they think is going to be controversial or bad, putting off the communication and letting the situation fester.
A manager may hold off telling an employee that their standard of work is unsatisfactory. A child may put off telling their parents that they are struggling with classes at school. Most people can think of times when they have put off having that ‘difficult’ conversation, most people will also recognise that putting off the difficult conversation alleviates short-term anxiety.
However, constantly putting off difficult communication situations often leads to feelings of frustration, guilt, annoyance with oneself, anger, a reduction in self-confidence and ultimately more stress and anxiety. By following some simple guidelines and using some well-tuned communication skills communicating in difficult situations becomes easier.
There are two distinct types of difficult conversation, planned and unplanned.
Planned conversations are when the subject has been given thought, they are planned as the time, place and other circumstances have been arranged or are chosen for a reason. Planned difficult conversations could include asking an employer for a pay-rise. Although these situations are, by their nature, difficult they are controlled and as long as time has been taken to prepare and think properly about how others may react they can often end up being easier than imagined.
Unplanned difficult conversations however take place on the spur of the moment; these are often fuelled by anger which can, in extreme cases, lead to aggression. Often, after an unplanned difficult conversation we feel a surge of emotion – regret or shame if things didn’t go to well or potentially a boost to confidence if they did. After such encounters it is wise to reflect and learn from our experiences trying to find positives and ways of improving future unplanned interchanges.
Certain jobs and roles require difficult communication to be handled professionally, with empathy, tact, discretion and clarity.
Managers in organisations may need to communicate difficult information on several levels, to staff who are underperforming or if redundancies are necessary. Managers may also need to report bad news upwards to directors or board members, perhaps profits are down or some arm of the organisation is failing.
There are two main factors that make communication seem difficult: emotion and change.
People tend to look at emotions as being positive or negative. Happiness is positive and therefore sadness must be negative, calmness is positive whereas stress and anxiety are negative. Emotions are, however, a natural response to situations that we find ourselves in, and the only time that we need to be concerned is when we consistently feel emotions inappropriate to our current situation. Emotions are therefore not positive or negative but appropriate or inappropriate. When faced with unexpected news we may find ourselves becoming upset, frustrated, angry – or perhaps very happy and excited. It is helpful to recognise how we react to things emotionally and to think of different ways in which emotions can be controlled if necessary. .
Often difficult conversations are about some sort of change, for example, changes in your job or ways of doing things, changes in finances or health, changes in a relationship. Change is inevitable. Different people handle change in different ways, some respond very positively to a change in circumstances whereas others may only be able to see problems and difficulty at first. If possible it is beneficial to think about the positive side of the change and the potential opportunities that it may bring. It is better for an individual’s wellbeing if they are able to embrace change as positively as possible, thus helping to minimise stress and anxiety.
Skills You Need for Dealing with Difficult Conversations:
There has to be a balance between communicating something difficult and being as sensitive as possible to those concerned.
1. Gather Information
Make sure you have your facts straight before you begin, know what you are going to say and why you are going to say it. Try to anticipate any questions or concerns others may have and think carefully about how you will answer questions.
2. Be Assertive
Once you are sure that something needs to be communicated then do so in an assertive way. We have several pages on assertiveness including, how to be more assertive and recognising why people are not assertive Do not find yourself backing down or changing your mind mid conversation.
3. Be Empathic
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about how they will feel about what you are telling them; how would you feel if the roles were reversed? Give others time to ask questions and make comments.
4. Be Prepared to Negotiate
Often a difficult situation requires a certain amount of negotiation, be prepared for this. When negotiating, aim for a Win|Win outcome – that is, some way in which all parties can benefit.
5. Use Appropriate Verbal and Non-Verbal Language
Speak clearly avoiding any jargon that other parties may not understand, give eye contact and try to sit or stand in a relaxed way. Do not use confrontational language or body language.
When we are stressed we listen less well, try to relax and listen carefully to the views, opinions and feelings of the other person/people. Use clarification and reflection techniques to offer feedback and demonstrate that you were listening.
7. Try to Stay Calm and Focused
Communication becomes easier when we are calm, take some deep breaths and try to maintain an air of calmness, others are more likely to remain calm if you do. Keep focused on what you want to say, don’t deviate or get distracted from the reason that you are communicating.