Difficult conversations are, well, difficult. They can range from disagreements with a colleague to family conflicts or confrontations with friends. No matter the situation, one thing’s certain – these conversations can be uncomfortable and challenging. But learning how to navigate them with grace and empathy is a valuable skill that can help improve your relationships and overall communication.
As someone who has had their fair share of difficult conversations, I know firsthand how uncomfortable they can be. But I’ve learned over the years that avoiding these conversations is not the solution. Instead, it’s important to approach them with a level head and a desire to understand the other person’s perspective. Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years that can help you navigate difficult conversations with grace and empathy:
#1 – Do Not Procrastinate
It’s really easy to avoid tough conversations and convince yourself that if you wait long enough, the issue will go away on its own. However, that’s rarely the case. I promise you that ignoring the problem will not fix it. In most cases, it will pop up again and often worse.
No one likes to confront difficult situations, but delaying the conversation only increases stress for everyone involved. Instead, deal with challenging conversations immediately when possible. Everyone will be better off because it resolves the issue and prevents it from snowballing into a bigger problem. Talking things out often reduces stress and helps build a better understanding between the parties involved.
#2 - Listen with an Open Mind
It’s easy to become defensive or shut down during a difficult conversation. However, listening to the other person’s perspective with an open mind is essential. Try to understand their point of view, even if you disagree with it. By actively listening, you’ll show the other person that you value their opinion and you’re willing to work towards a solution together.
A second part of this tip is to listen more than you talk. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Ask open-ended questions to get the other person to talk more. Often a person will make your point for you on their own if you let them talk enough and lead them with the right questions. Plus, listening might just result in learning something you didn’t know about the person or situation. That knowledge might even help you come to a positive resolution.
#3 - Communicate with Empathy
It’s also important to approach difficult conversations with empathy. Showing understanding, compassion, and respect can go a long way toward fostering trust in relationships. Even if you disagree with the other person’s opinion, it’s still possible to empathize and understand their feelings.
Early in my leadership journey, I discovered the value of communicating empathetically. I learned to keep an attentive eye on my tone and body language and to utilize “I” statements instead of “you” when having difficult conversations. These simple changes can foster a collaborative vibe rather than one that could be perceived as accusatory or defensive.
For example, when I need to have a difficult conversation with an employee, I always start by asking them to share how they feel about the situation and encourage them to open up without fear of repercussions. This shows that I want to understand their point of view and why they might feel the way they do. (By the way – this has to be genuine.) Then I do my best to listen intently so that I have all the details and a clear understanding of where they’re coming from.
Another tip is to avoid calling them into your office, where they might feel intimidated and uncomfortable. Instead, opt for a more neutral space or invite them to lunch. If that’s not feasible, go to their office and sit across from them while they maintain their position behind their desk. This approach immediately shows that I’m there to collaborate and helps to create a safe space for both parties to exchange ideas and find a mutually beneficial solution.
#4 - Remain Flexible and Adaptable
In Point #1, I recommend you deal with difficult conversations immediately “when possible.” I phrased it that way because sometimes, immediately addressing an issue is NOT the best solution. That’s where this point about flexibility comes in. While I’m the kind of person who would like to come to an immediate resolution when there’s conflict, I’ve learned through experience that sometimes it’s better to step away from a difficult conversation and return to it later when I’ve had a chance to cool off. Creating some space gives both parties time to digest the information, consider their options, and develop mutually beneficial solutions. So, I always remain flexible and assess the best approach given the situation.
I recently had a significant argument with one of my key managers. The discussion got ugly fast and happened spontaneously. In this case, we mutually agreed to a cooling-off period before we’d get together again to deal with the issue. This turned out to be a beneficial move as the second meeting, which was the following day, was far more peaceful and productive, enabling us to come to a positive resolution.
As a business owner, I’ve often had to step in as a mediator between team members. When this occurs, I apply the same principles to both parties in dispute to ensure both are heard and understood. Taking that break after the initial discussion usually helps diffuse tensions and allows for a fresh perspective.
#5 - Deal with the Facts
Facts can be an elusive thing. Everyone has a point of view, but more often than not, that point of view is based on incorrect information. I always ensure we’re dealing with accurate information as a starting point. Opinions are important, but there must be a source of absolute truth as a base to build on.
The Bottom Line
Navigating difficult conversations can be tricky. However, by approaching them with grace, empathy, and an open mindset, you can successfully foster relationships built on trust and respect. You might even grow closer as a result. Give it a try.