How to have tough conversations with friends, family, clients, and colleagues

Who here likes a tough conversation? 

Who likes a good argument?

I'm guessing that most of you reading this would say no to both.

Arguments and tough conversations are part of being a human being. But they don't have to be so fraught with peril. 

Unfortunately, most of us tend to go about our tough conversating as adrenaline-fueled animals, not as enlightened beings. It's one of the reasons that we often have the same arguments over and over as well as repeat the same arguments we grew up with.

I've even heard people use lines in a heated exchange that we've heard previously in sitcoms and movies. Scarily, I've caught myself doing it. But there's a pretty good reason for becoming a cliche when we get upset. 

When we are upset and stressed (and have adrenaline coursing through our bodies), we reach to familiar (and comfortable and quick) phrases to express our emotions. We are not actually using our brains to choose specific words. Instead, we're spouting a cultural-familial mashup of phrases that become how we do tough conversations. 

It's easier and in some ways soothing, but it's not accurate and doesn't typically yield the outcomes we desire (greater intimacy and connection).

As a result, tough conversations can suck. Or they can be the best thing that ever happened to a relationship.  Today I'm going to give you my perspective on how to experience the latter outcome after a tough conversation.

Here goes. *Deep breath.*

Our yoga teacher Elena Brower is forever telling us to breathe to make space, especially when we are angry. Photo from by  Teneshia Carr

Our yoga teacher Elena Brower is forever telling us to breathe to make space, especially when we are angry. Photo from by Teneshia Carr

1. Take deep breaths. Encourage the other person to do the same. 

This might sound silly, patronizing and too yoga-class-y to actually work, but taking a deep breath before speaking is scientifically proven to help calm your fight-or-flight response and fosters intimacy. 

In a business scenario, I tell the other person that I'm going to take a deep breath and invite him to do the same. It's a great diffuser in those contexts because it can catch a suit off guard. The surprise of being invited to breathe can disarm even the most intense emotions and reactions. 

I was once in a meeting that was getting really heated. A CEO was berating and disagreeing with his team. They were becoming defensive. Everyone was practically yelling and clearly no good strategy can come out of that kind of situation. I had everyone close their eyes, put their hands on their tummies and start to breathe. For 20 minutes I led them on a guided meditation (that was a little extreme but extreme circumstances..) until I felt like the tension in the room had dissipated enough for us to be able to continue. 

2. Before getting started with the conversation, restate your foundational commitment. 

"Hey, I just want you to know that no matter what, I love you. This conversation doesn't change that."

"Scott, I love working with you and I am committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure that you're a happy customer." 

When you start by first affirming your commitment to the relationship and to that person, you remind the other person about the covenant between you both- that you agreed to come together to do work, create a family, be friends.

Reaffirming the relationship does not give you permission to be a dick, however; it means that you want to hold yourselves to a higher standard in light of your relationship. 

This is exactly how NOT to do it. 

This is exactly how NOT to do it. 

3. Start with I statements. A great construct is: I felt (insert emotion here) when you (insert action here). 

"I felt let down when you didn't ask my permission before making that decision."

Often when we're angry or upset, we lead with you statements.

"Why did you do that? How could you?"

The you construct leads to defensiveness and right vs. wrong adversarial interactions. Leading with I keeps you focused on your perspective and from casting blame. 

4. Stick to facts!  What actually happened? What was actually said? 

Asking "what" questions can get to the facts. Avoid "how" or "why" questions as those veer away from facts into the land of interpretation. 

"What I saw was..."

"What I heard was..."

This gives you both an opportunity to compare notes. Did you both hear the same words? See the same actions? 

So often, discord arises because we interpret facts differently from other people. Laying out what happened can be a great way to see where interpretation could be causing problems, not people. 

5. When delivering a critique, use the ++-+ approach. (Also known as Plus Plus Minus Plus.)

"Hi honey, I love you and you are always so good at doing things that I ask you to do. Would you be able to remember to take out the garbage without my asking? Thank you- I love you so much."

Or would you rather have it this way: "Why can't you take out the garbage before it's overflowing?! I am so sick of having to ask you!" 

Which wife would you rather be married to? 


6. Wrap it up consciously and with a recap of your foundational covenant. 

Not by saying, "Are we done here?" (Bleh, by the way.)

A simple, "Are we complete?" can suffice. Also consider "I feel complete. Do you feel complete?" and "I'm glad that we're friends." 

Lauren FritschComment