Believe me when I tell you that I hate conflict.
Several years ago, I avoided a hard conversation with a very good friend that turned into a three-year standoff! Neither one of us talked to the other, we didn’t look at each other, and we went out of our way to avoid being in the same room together. The standoff came to end when she bravely reached out and asked to have coffee. During that hard conversation, we realized it was all a misunderstanding that had started with a simple miscommunication neither of us had the courage to clarify. We spent three years believing the other was at fault. And, worse yet, we each believed the other was deliberate in their attempts to hurt us.
If only one of us had been brave enough to reach out and start the hard conversation we could have avoided all the hard feelings, pain, and emotional aftermath of a broken friendship.
But for so much of my life, I avoided confrontation. I ruined a whole bunch of friendships because I was too afraid to face the hard stuff. I avoided people when I could tell they were upset with me. And I ignored my own feelings of frustration when I was upset with them.
When it comes down to it, relationships are messy.
(Am I right?!)
In my work as a relationship and communication coach, I’ve observed three ways hard conversations can go badly:
1. Avoiding the hard conversation.
Hard conversations smell too much like conflict. So we pretend everything’s okay and avoid talking about what’s upsetting us. You know how the rest of the story goes, right? Every time you see that person, your heart races and you act weirdly nice, but feel the sting of hurt inside. We think we’re still being nice, but we’re actually becoming passive-aggressive and avoiding the other person. The tension is apparent to both of you. Pretty soon you stop having coffee, and the friendship slowly fades away.
2. Being blindsided by an unexpected hard conversation.
You sit down to a much-anticipated coffee date with your friend, and you hear the words, “We need to talk.” After what feels like hours of hearing every bad thing you’ve ever done and said, you end the conversation feeling hurt, misunderstood, unappreciated, deflated, and confused. The other person skips happily away, having gotten a few things off their chest, leaving you to sit stewing for days.
3. Diving into a hard conversation unprepared.
You have amassed a sizable list of justifiable reasons for your feelings of anger and frustration. You pick up the phone, and you bravely dive in. Your feelings take over and words keep tumbling out of your mouth. You each end up defending yourself and blaming the other. The conversation devolves into an argument. And now, instead of clearing the air, your conflict has escalated and you are both feeling hurt and confused.
We’re going to rub each other the wrong way, step on toes, and say the wrong things to one another, which is why hard conversations are necessary. It’s a form of magical thinking to believe you can have strong relationships without ever having hard conversations. I know it’s hard to hear, but the bottom line is that in order to be in relationship with people we have to have the hard conversations.
What if you could think about hard conversations in a whole new way?
Allow me to suggest an alternate definition: “A hard conversation is the mutual sharing of information that can lead to a deeper understanding of each other’s positions. Ideally, you work together to come to an agreement on how to reach a common goal.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. You’ll need to develop three skills to avoid the pitfalls of conflict and help you prepare for a successful outcome – maintaining your relationships.
- Understand the difference between criticism and feedback.
Do you know why you feel crummy after a poorly executed, blindsiding hard conversation? You may have been on the receiving end of criticism. Criticism points the finger, blames, and focuses on the past. Criticism offers no solutions and only expresses frustration. Feedback, on the other hand, assumes a position of teamwork, sends the message “We’re in this together!” and creates solutions to problems in collaboration.
- Develop the superpower of asking lots of questions—good questions—before you dive in.
You may feel certain that you already know what the other person thinks or believes. But assuming is the fastest way to turn your hard conversation into an unresolved conflict — that could result in a three-year standoff. When you approach the other person with a posture of curiosity, you immediately disarm the tension. They are more likely to feel heard and understood. By asking questions, you may discover how aligned you are after all — no conflict actually exists. (Yay!) And sometimes you’ll learn you really don’t agree, and you can find a compromise or agree to disagree. I’ve learned if we can agree on the big stuff like mutual respect, healthy boundaries and choosing kindness, we don’t have to always agree on every issue to have a great friendship. Maybe there are topics you don’t discuss, and that’s okay.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Diving into a hard conversation unprepared is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Okay, I know this sounds dramatic, but I’ve seen enough hard conversations go badly from the “just dive in head-first” approach, I’m confident I’m not overstating the analogy. When you are emotionally charged and ready to defend yourself, that’s your cue to take a moment and calm yourself down. Ask yourself, “How valuable is this relationship to me? Am I ready to end it because I need a quick release?” No friend appreciates being emotionally dumped on. Find a coach or a trusted friend to vent if you need to. And then take these steps to prepare for your hard conversation:
- determine if you are about to serve up a heaping plate of criticism or offer intentional feedback;
- prepare the clarifying questions you want to ask
- pre-decide the outcome you are hoping for
Once I learned the skills for having a hard conversation, I’ve been able to talk openly to my friends about issues on my mind and heart. I’m not awkwardly trying to avoid people or walking around them on eggshells because my feelings are hurt. I’ve learned how to approach people without insecurity when I sense they might be upset with me. I ask questions instead of making assumptions.
I’ve discovered the power of having the hard conversation. It has made my relationships deeper and richer and longer-lasting. And I want this for you. I want you to walk into any room at any event and know you don’t have any unresolved tension between you and anyone else in the room. I want you to be authentically you in every one of your relationships without being afraid to be honest with yourself and in your relationships.
You don’t have to hide or avoid conflict. You don’t have to sit quietly while you’re being blindsided. And you don’t have to dive in without a parachute. You can develop the skills you need to express yourself and keep your friends close.
What makes a hard conversation so… well, hard for you? You don’t have to do the hard stuff alone.
Finding a coach who can walk you through developing the skills and taking the right steps to master the hard conversation will make you more confident in your ability to say hard things and will enrich your relationships with people you love.
Lori Young has over 25 years of experience working with people; from sitting with dying patients and their families in hospice care to counseling women who left abusive relationships to starting a non-profit providing home furnishings for women finding independence from domestic violence. She has had a front-row seat to how people react in a crisis, how they interact in relationships, and how they communicate when life is hard. She uses her experience and expertise to give you practical tools and advice for improving your relationships and communication.