How To Handle Tough Conversations

We all have to deal with tough conversations. It may be at work, at home, in church, in school, or in some other community situation. To avoid excessive stress for yourself and those with whom you are talking, consider these suggestions:
   1. As you enter the conversation, begin with something on which you and the other person can agree. If you know the crux of the conversation is going to deal with a problem, it is good to kick off things with a positive emphasis rather than immediately jump into the disagreement. With some people, beginning on a high note may require some extra digging on your part to uncover a common ground of agreement. However, it can be well worth the time spent.
   2. Get in the habit of using “and” rather than “but.” The word “but” acts like an eraser inside a person’s head. It tends to erase the value of anything said prior to the “but.” For example, it is a positive emphasis to say, “I appreciate the way you have been getting to work on time, and I want to discuss with you how to take better advantage of your time and accomplish more while you are here.” It is a negative emphasis to say, “I appreciate the way you have been getting to work on time, but I want to discuss with you how you can take better advantage of your time and accomplish more while you are here.”
   3. Use “I” statements more than “you” statements. “I” helps to clarify for the other person what you think and feel, while “you” can make a person feel like he or she is being attacked. “I” also reduces defensiveness and helps communication. For example, a negative connotation is fostered with, “You are not using your time wisely.” A positive connotation is fostered with, “I feel that your valuable time can be used more wisely.”
   4. Negative and absolute statements are closely associated with avoiding the “you” factor. A negative statement would begin with, “Why can’t you…” Its positive counterpart would begin with, “What if we…” A negative statement would begin with, “I hate it when…” Its positive counterpart would begin with, “I feel it would be better if…” An example of an absolute statement to avoid is, “He always says…” Non-absolute would be, “I’ve heard him say…” An absolute is, “Nothing ever gets done right around here.” A non-absolute is, “At times, we’ve had problems getting things done right.”  
   5. Even though the person with whom you are dealing may be difficult, keep in mind the value of treating people well regardless of how they treat you. Be direct while being likable and polite. It’s harder for someone to continue to treat a thoughtful person thoughtlessly.
   6. Be a good listener and then respond appropriately to what has been said. Allow the difficult person to fully express his or her feelings. Then acknowledge your awareness of the situation, describe what you see and her, reveal what you think and feel, and say what you want. Avoid coming on as a judge or being too general.
   7. Rather than taking a position on something, seek to deal with a need. Discover what motivates the person so you can offer alternative ways of solving the problem. Chances are the person has simply adopted the most obvious solution, which isn’t working. In other words, move from what the person wants to why the person wants it and why he or she is not getting it.
   8. Be prepared to accept some blame. More often than not, you have played some role in bringing about the behaviors to which you are subjected. Admit what your fault is quickly and emphatically. Whenever you shoulder your share of the blame, others are more likely to own up to theirs.  Sometimes you can encourage the other person to cooperate by claiming more responsibility than you deserve. Bear Bryant, legendary football coach of the University of Alabama, was noted for applying this approach to help his players perform better. He won 323 games and six national championships. 
Carl Mays, author of over a dozen books and speaker at over 2500 events, can be contacted at or 865-436-7478. His books, including “A Strategy For Winning,” “People of Passion,” “Anatomy Of A Leader” and “Are We Communicating Yet?” are available in stores, at


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