Why do difficult conversations have to be so…difficult? No one relishes the opportunity to deliver bad news, point out others’ mistakes, or discuss something that needs to change. Even so, conflict at work is unavoidable: A study on workplace communication surveyed 5,000 people across nine countries and found that on average, we spend over two and a half hours every week dealing with conflict.
As uncomfortable as they may be, difficult conversations are a necessary part of overcoming challenges and reaching shared goals. When you can stay calm, patient, and curious, you can face conflict directly—and constructively. Here are four ways tackle difficult conversations like a pro:
1. Be intentional.
Part of what makes conflict so dreadful is that you tend to, well, dread it. But if you can keep the goal of the conversation top of mind, you can be driven by intention rather than intimidation. Ask yourself: What about this talk makes it worth having? Why is it important? Once you’ve solidified your “why,” use it to reframe the conversation in a positive or productive way. For example, if you need to give a someone critical feedback on their work, think of it as a chance to talk about their development or an opportunity for growth. This perspective should help calm your nerves—and the calmer you are, the more at ease your listener will be.
2. Don’t be a DEAL-breaker.
When expectations aren’t clearly communicated, frustration can creep in, which makes it much harder to find common ground. The Mind Reading Thinking Trap—a habitual thought pattern characterized by expecting others to know what you’re thinking without having to tell them, or expecting to know what others are thinking without them telling you—is often at the root of communication breakdowns. To escape this trap, check that you aren’t making any assumptions: Have I clearly communicated my expectations? Have I confirmed that I understand their expectations? meQuilibrium Co-founder and Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., recommends using the DEAL model to avoid miscommunication:
–Describe in detail what you want from the other person
–Explain how it affects you
–Ask for specific, manageable change
–Let them know how much better this will make you feel if they follow through
3. Practice reflective listening.
Difficult conversations hardly ever stay on-script, especially when emotions are running high. Making a sincere effort to hear the other person’s point of view will ease both of your minds and take you from conflict to compromise. Practice reflective listening by summarizing what the other person has said in a statement of understanding. For example: “So you’re being asked to juggle a lot of tasks, and it feels unfair. You feel like you could use more support. Is that right?” This summary helps you clarify your understanding and get at the values, goals, and beliefs of the other person, which makes it easier to come to a mutually beneficial solution.
4. Steer clear of the blame game.
Even just the word “confrontation” is enough to make palms sweat and hearts race—especially in the workplace—and an accusatory tone adds unnecessary tension and puts the listener on the defensive. Separate fact from opinion by using “I” statements that focus on how you feel about a situation, instead of the other person’s actions or character. For example, instead of saying, “It’s disrespectful when you talk over me in meetings,” say, “When I’m interrupted in meetings, I don’t feel heard. I feel unappreciated when I don’t feel listened to.” This approach allows you to be assertive and get to the root of a conflict without assigning blame.
Ultimately, you can’t control or predict how someone will react to conflict. However, when you come to the other person from a place of commonality, you can transform a confrontation into a conversation, which fosters positive communication and increases the odds of a favorable outcome for everyone involved.
Elior Moskowitz is the Content Coordinator at meQuilibrium. A frequent Cup of Calm contributor, she also writes for various major business journals and lifestyle publications. Elior holds a B.A. in Psychology and English, with special training in both positive psychology and mental health counseling.