Tips for talking in hard conversations

Something is bothering you. Part of you wants to express yourself. Another part doesn’t want to rock the boat or appear overly sensitive or damage a relationship. You walk on eggshells a while longer. 
Then, you decide it’s important enough to bring up, though you know it’s risky. Opinions will likely conflict. Things could get emotional. Your heart races. Your hands sweat. Your voice shakes.
How do you handle high stakes, high pressure conversations? What’s the best way to address situations you know must change?
Common tactics include the age-old twins of silence or violence, also known as fight or flight. But dealing in the extremes of any part of life rarely gets us to where we want to go.
Four corporate consultants joined forces a number of years ago to write “Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high.” Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler published a second edition in 2012.
Most people would agree that the quality of our relationships largely determines our success and satisfaction in each area of life. So, if relationship is the end we seek, communication must be the means.
The ability to communicate toward healthy outcomes, especially when times are tense, will open opportunities unavailable to those stuck in the ruts of defensiveness, point-proving and score-settling.
Patterson, et al. offer the following ideas for making the most of important discussions. It turns out you don’t have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend. You can have both.
1.      Decide what you really want: for yourself, for others, for the relationship. This shared purpose will help you “start with heart” and remember your highest priorities.
2.      Establish mutual purpose. For example, “We both are counting on this organization’s success, so it’s important to me that we have a good working relationship.”
3.      Add to the “pool of meaning.” The word “dialogue” literally means the free flow of meaning between two or more people. Understand what the real issues are.
4.      Create a safe environment. Nothing kills the free flow of meaning like fear. When people use silence or violence, they are feeling unsafe. Resist the urge to respond in kind.
5.      Use contrasting. For example, “The reason I ask questions is not that I don’t think the organization is well-run. It’s that I truly want to build on the progress we’ve made.”
6.      Ask yourself, “What story am I making up?” Emotions can come on strong and make you imagine things that may not be true. Made-up stories then cause more emotions. 
7.      STATE your path.
a.       Share your facts – “I’ve noticed you’ve shown up late to the last few meetings.”
b.      Tell your story – “It appears you may be losing your passion for our cause.”
c.       Ask for others’ stories – “How do you see the situation?”
d.      Talk tentatively – “Perhaps you were unaware…” / “I am wondering…”
e.       Encourage testing – “What am I missing here? Is my view accurate?”
These skills take practice. Pick one and try it in your next hard conversation – or in your next response to your favorite columnist!
Kevin Thompson can be reached at

1 Response to “Tips for talking in hard conversations”

  1. 1 jessestroup April 15, 2016 at 10:16

    Kevin, That’s a Keeper !  Thank you much.  I will begin as you suggested by practicing number 7 a.- e.I am proud of you.Jesse

     Jesse R. Stroup Director of Spiritual Care Lifeline Chaplaincy 1926 Chattanooga Pl. #B Dallas, TX 75235

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