5 Secrets To Having A Positive Hard Conversation

Hard conversations are an essential part of your life. To lead well at work, see your friendships grow, parent well, or build a healthy relationship, you have to figure out how to have them.

But they aren’t easy, are they?

I was speaking with a leader this week who asked me, “Jeff, how do I get to the point where I don’t feel so much emotional tension around hard conversations with my team at work?”  

I asked him, “Are you asking me if you can harden your heart to the point you don’t feel empathy or emotion during a hard conversation? Are you sure you want that?” He admitted that he didn’t want that. Why? Because we both agreed that a hard, numb heart leads to cynicism. 

Ok, so another option, “Do you want to get to the point where you actually enjoy conflict?” Well, that wasn’t an option for him. What kind of psychopath revels in conflict and tension? Who likes to see people feel hurt?

This leader knew the outcome he was looking for at the end of the hard conversation. That was clear. But what do you do about the emotional tension you feel on the way there?

He didn’t want to win the argument only to lose the relationship.

Don’t you feel that way sometimes? The hard conversation or the argument we have with our friend, spouse, kids, or coworker isn’t challenging because of the topic, the real challenge is the tension in the relationship.

So what do you do? Well, it’s all about the approach.

When navigating the emotion of a hard conversation, the right approach is more important than the right argument.

Personally, I’m a high passion person. I feel every relationship. I can meet someone for the first time and “feel” who they are very quickly. It’s a bit of a sixth sense sometimes. There are lots of us out there. So I’ve had to navigate the emotion of relationships a lot.

Here are five keys I’ve learned along the way that I think a lot of people miss.

1. Know how you fight, and how the other person does.

We all handle conflict differently. Some people fight hot, and some people fight cold. If you fight hot, you bring a lot of passion to a hard conversation. Maybe you overwhelm the room with your energy, you dominate the conversation, or you make your argument with so much intensity that you devastate people.

Or maybe you fight cold. You shut down. You say little, and you internally push the issue down. Or you just leave and avoid. Or perhaps you hold grudges. You judge silently and don’t voice your opinion. However, eventually, you know that frustration comes out somewhere, usually with someone who isn’t even involved.

Knowing how you fight helps you to decide how to approach the conversation. 

If you fight hot, you need to tone it down and give the other person an opportunity to talk. You can’t make it all about you. You need to take a deep breath. 

If you fight cold, you need to step out and say how you really feel, regardless of the outcome. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth it in the long run. You have to believe in your head even when you don’t feel that way. 

Also, think about how the other person handles conflict. If they fight cold, ask a lot of questions. Push yourself to hear their side of things. If they fight hot, know that going in. They are going to bring a lot of emotion to the conversation. It’s nothing personal, it’s just how they are. Staying calm and continuing to listen actively is vital for everyone. Come seeking common ground where you can begin the conversation.

As James says:

“You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”

James 1:19

2. Know your passive-aggressive pitfalls.

Some people are more passive-aggressive than others. I think it can be a sign of someone’s emotional intelligence and even mental wellness. However, you need to admit that you have passive-aggressive tendencies yourself. Hey, don’t be embarrassed, we all do. 

You get passive-aggressive around people who aren’t organized or don’t exhibit cleanliness, or people who bring more questions than solutions. Wondering what your passive-aggressive tendencies are? Just ask your co-workers or your family. 

Often what defines a passive-aggressive tendency is something that is a big deal to you that you know isn’t a big deal to everyone. You just don’t realize it’s not a big deal to everyone. So, you try to push it aside and then lash out in unhealthy ways, or you over-react. 

In Romans 7 Paul writes:

“I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.”

Romans 7:15-17

Sound familiar? So much of this is at the heart of our passive-aggressive behaviour. Battling the sin inside is the tension we feel when we over or under-react. We feel the tension and we regret it when we don’t handle it well.

So, if you can make a list of the things that trigger your passive-aggressive tendencies, you are way ahead! If you are a follower of Jesus, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to you. Once you know those are hot button issues that cause you to overreact internally, you can see the potholes before hitting them. Now when those temptations to over or under-react come up, you want to approach the conversation with grace. Honestly, it’s likely more your issue than their issue. You need to remember that.

3. Changing the setting changes the climate of the conversation.

This is a simple but powerful one. One of the best things for a tense conversation can be changing the setting. 

We behave differently in a fresh setting. Need to have a challenging conversation with a coworker? Meet at a coffee shop. Need to have a sit down with your teenager? Take them to lunch. Sometimes a walk or something active is a great way to have a hard conversation. Not only does a public setting keep both parties from any outbursts, but it also changes the climate of the conversation.

A new location brings a new climate.

4. Stay off the keyboard…really stay off it!

I can’t tell you the number of times that conflict starts over a keyboard. Text messaging, email, etc., are not the way forward when it comes to hard conversations.

If you find yourself writing more than a three-sentence reply around a tense issue, that’s a sure sign it deserves a phone call or face-to-face conversation. I can’t say this strongly enough; tough issues are never truly settled over written communication. 

Romans 12:9-21 is a powerful passage on how we should try to live with others in our lives. It ends with the phrase, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I think you’ll agree that an angry or frustrated person at a keyboard rarely responds this way.

I realize this isn’t always easy, and sometimes you need some time to cool off (different from procrastinating). Pick up the phone; on the other side, you will rarely regret it.

5. Understand the role of bravery.

Hard conversations take courage. You have to be brave. Think about what bravery really is – it’s doing the hard thing even when it’s uncomfortable. Hard conversations or working through conflict is both hard work and uncomfortable. 

The first step is to pray. I think that God is honoured when He sees a heart willing to do the right thing with humility (Philippians 2:1-11), especially when it’s difficult. He wants to strengthen you and give you the peace and grace you need.

Remember, courage isn’t the absence of tension, it’s being brave enough to push through it. It’s not the absence of emotion, it’s the ability to share honestly and appropriately in the midst of emotion.

So be brave and approach the other person with both grace and truth. Be honest, but empathize, and see what happens. You might be surprised.

If you are looking for a great tool here is a link to a checklist for difficult questions. It’s a series of five questions to ask yourself before your next difficult or important conversation.

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