10 Steps to Making a Difficult Conversation Productive

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This question recently came my way: Do you know of a better way than empathetic “I statements” to de-escalate someone who is angry when I'm scared? 

I loved this question because she starts the inquiry by asking for more than the standard approach for difficult conversations.  Of course we should begin with “I statements” and avoid accusations.

(For the uninitiated, here’s an example: “When you neglect to pay your portion of our shared lunch, I feel used and this makes me sad.  I would like you to pay up without being asked.”

We pretty much all know that by now…I hope.  But they don’t always work.  In fact, sometimes they make things worse because people feel manipulated or patronized by them. 

Most of us just handle difficult conversations by avoiding them.  I am a huge fan of avoidance, not because it works or makes sense but because it’s easy and I’m scared.  As a mediator, I’m supposed to be good at this sort of thing, but all professional expertise goes out the window when I’m faced with difficult conversations in my personal life.  I struggle to stay calm when I'm anxious.  I opt out (by agreeing too easily) or opt in (by reacting emotionally).  Neither of these help.  

In an attempt to reconcile these two parts of myself and hopefully share my learning along the way, here’s my response to this question in 10 not-so-easy steps:

  1. Discharge the Drama.  When facing difficult conversations, our anxiety about laying it on the table often builds up unhelpful emotional reactions.  We’ve probably had the conversation in our heads, anticipated responses and our reactions to those responses.  None of this helps us begin from a clear, calm place.  Stop the loop of story-telling and quiet your mind through exercise, meditation, or a good night’s sleep.
  2. Distill Your Point.  Before you open your mouth, winnow down your reason for speaking up.  Cut away all the superfluous information including judgments and your emotional history with this behavior.  You may want to write it out so you can boil it down to the one salient statement that clearly expresses why you need to speak to this other person. 
  3. Plan.  How many times have I dropped a bomb just as we’re about to walk into a party or head off on a vacation because I’ve let the issue fester until I lose control of my best self?  Be strategic regarding how and when you talk.  Determine the ideal setting and timing and then share your plan with the other person.  This is both respectful and helpful since it allows that person to prepare as well.  Be sure to allow yourself enough time beforehand to get calm and positive.  If you can’t get there, go back to step 1.
  4. Frame the Conflict.  Begin by talking about what you want to talk about.  State the situation in a neutral way.  “I’d like to talk with you about repayment of the loan” not “I’m mad because you haven’t paid back that $5000 I lent you.” How you open the discussion sets the tone for the whole conversation, so convey respect. Once you’ve framed the conversation in a sentence, stop speaking.
  5. Let the Other Person Speak First, Last and Most.  If you ignore all other advice, please follow this one rule.  Most people can’t listen when they have something pressing to say.  You already took the time to get calm and decide what you want to say so be generous and let the other person unload first.  This isn’t easy, but the generosity will pay off when the other person has exhausted his/her story and can sit patiently while you explain your situation.  (See why you needed all that quiet time before the conversation to prepare yourself?)
  6. Acknowledge the other Person’s Statement.  Don’t just launch into your side.  This typically gets the depth that children on a playground get with the “did not!” “did too!” face-off.  Really listen to the other person and find at least one true point to repeat back to him/her before sharing your position. Even if nothing they say rings true for you, you can acknowledge their feelings before responding. People typically treat you as you treat them.
  7. Don’t try to De-escalate the other Person.  The truth is we really can't de-escalate anyone else.  That's their job.  Our job is just to keep ourselves present and calm, which goes a long way in keeping the other person cool.  As soon as you try to make someone feel something, you engage in a power struggle.  Sadly, anger usually trumps fear in those situations so you are bound to lose.
  8. Let Go of Timing. When I’ve lost it, the only thing that helps me is taking a break.  In mediation, I can sometimes see people reaching the breaking point and I can mix it up with a private conversation or just a pause for coffee.  It's harder to do that for ourselves in the moment, particularly as things are escalating.  Best to explain that you need time to think and ask to come back to it another time. Set a time to re-start so that it doesn’t linger or get dropped.  
  9. Let Go of Rightness. You don’t want the other person to be overly attached to being right because then you can’t work out a solution.  Extend that openness that you seek to the other person.  Take the time to consider whether you’ve learned anything that changes your perspective.  (Yes, this IS the hardest step)
  10. Let Go of Outcome. We all want the conversation to wrap up neatly with our ideal agreement and a handshake or a hug.  This rarely happens.  For whatever reason, solutions don’t look like we want them to.  Sometimes in mediation I marvel because the parties who have developed a beautiful set of agreements look like they’ve had their wisdom teeth pulled.  The emotional aspect to these sorts of conversations leave many of us exhausted, cranky or unwilling to say “I agree.”  But the solution may have taken root and may surface once you’ve had some time to heal the wounds.  Pride is an enormous barrier to happy endings, but if we don’t press it, people often come around.

What strikes me as I spell this out is that the bulk of the work is done beforehand and at the end of the conversation.  The grace that is required to be calm and present in the heat of a difficult conversation comes primarily from clearing out our judgment and anger before we start and knowing when to stop.  Remember, this is some of the hardest work we do on this earth, so don’t beat yourself up if you spend the rest of your life practicing.