Bridging the gap in difficult conversations is tough. Here Sara Hope and Emily Cosgrove offer ways to make it a little less painful
Difficult conversations are a part of being human. This remains as true in work as it does outside. The challenges we all face as we navigate our way through life can be seriously tough. Whichever side of the conversation we may be standing, talking with another person (or people) involved in, for example, behavioural issues, redundancy, bereavement, or a breakdown in trust, can feel deeply uncomfortable.
However, talk about it we must. That is if we are to understand, empathise, resolve (if resolution is possible and appropriate), and move forward. And this means facing the discomfort that we may inevitably feel. The phrase ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable’ is often used in the context of difficult conversations but taking a different perspective of embracing the discomfort, rather than trying to get comfortable with it, may be more realistic.
Being human means that when we sense both an immediate or a perceived threat, like a difficult conversation, our body kicks in with its natural response and triggers our sympathetic nervous system. This stimulates both a physical and emotional response. Our heart beats harder and faster, our muscles tighten, we start to sweat, and we may get that all too familiar butterfly feeling in our stomachs. Our emotional response is more individual, and we can find ourselves ready to fight, take flight, freeze, or appease in order to deal with the threat.
A ‘conversational buddy’ at work – someone who we trust and can turn to in order to practice difficult conversations with – can make a huge difference
Realising that this is a normal human response can help us to acknowledge, accept, and begin working with the discomfort that we experience. We’re not designed to ever get comfortable with these feelings; that would defeat the very purpose of them. However, embracing the reality of them can help us to manage them and step into (and stay in) difficult work conversations. We may even be able to see the discomfort as an essential part of our growth. In the words of Brené Brown, ‘You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability. Embrace the suck.’
How then do we begin to embrace something that feels so difficult? There are a few strategies that can really help.
Let’s get physical
Our breath is always with us and whether it’s box breathing or simple mindfulness, breathing techniques can do wonders to help us in these moments. Working with our body can also help, for example, experimenting with standing, sitting, or walking around. Identifying a physical trigger too, for example crossing two fingers or placing your feet firmly on the ground, can also help to bring us back to ourselves, the conversation we want to have, and the message we want to share.
Understanding our own individual threat response can really help us plan to stay open to, and even embrace, the discomfort in our conversations. When we know and recognise our default response, we can then plan to help ourselves in the moment. For example, those who often appease may need to be hyper-vigilant and intentional about staying connected to the message they want the other person to hear. Having it written in front of them during the conversation can help, especially in the face of another person’s emotion.
Remaining aware that there is no absolute truth is fundamental to staying as objective as possible. Labelling the ‘issue’ as the difference between your two different stories, truths, or experiences helps to keep the conversation as inclusive and open as possible.
Being aware of our emotions and the simple, yet often difficult, task of naming them is critical if we are to develop our ability to manage them. This is an essential skill that can help us embrace the discomfort of difficult work conversations. Recognising that we are fearful, angry, or upset and exploring why, without judgement, allows us to process our feelings ahead of the conversation. It also enables us to better manage them if – and probably when – they show up during our interactions. This takes both self-awareness and practice and is described by Harvard psychologist, Susan David, as emotional agility.
Clarity of intent
Knowing what we want to say and, importantly, what we want the other person or people to hear, is fundamental. Testing this out with others can help ensure that the message we are sharing accurately reflects our intention. It can also help us identify whether we need to have the conversation at all, or whether there may be an option to let it go. If we do go ahead, encouraging everyone involved in the conversation to begin by sharing their intent and objective, helps provide clarity and the best opportunity for collaboration.
Practicing by speaking out loud is a powerful and helpful experience. Talking with others about the things we find difficult in conversations, significantly improves our ability to deal with them. Having a ‘conversational buddy’ at work – someone who we trust and can turn to in order to practice difficult conversations with – can make a huge difference. The opportunity to practice with a trusted colleague or friend, allows us to hear ourselves speak the words we want to share, or notice that sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to speak them at all.
Shifting our mindset from viewing a difficult conversation as a competition or something to win, to a mindset of collaboration (finding an agreed way forward), helps us stay open and honest to the other person and reduces the likelihood of either of us getting defensive. The tools to help us do this are the two conversational superpowers that we all have – listening and asking good questions.
Listening is the number one conversational super-skill that is most critical to staying in a difficult conversation and embracing the discomfort. Listening to understand rather than reply is a big ask when we feel uncomfortable, but it will provide us with essential information for asking questions and trying to hear the feelings behind the other person’s perspective.
Difficult conversations are inevitable. They are also an opportunity to learn, strengthen relationships, and ultimately lead to greater understanding and an improved workplace culture. The key is to step into them with courage, empathy, and a willingness to find a solution. And don’t forget to ‘embrace the discomfort’.
Emily Cosgrove and Sara Hope are co-founders of The Conversation Space and authors of Conversational Wisdom: Strengthening Human Connection Through the Power of Conversation.