How to have hard conversations in five steps
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How to have hard conversations in five steps

Breakups. Firing employees. Telling your friends they stink. Nobody likes having hard conversations, but hard conversations are the most important ones to have. While they most certainly aren’t easy, learning how to tackle tough subjects is a crucial skill that takes time and patience to properly develop.  

If you’re about to enter a difficult conversation, avoiding it is the last thing you should do. Even if your brain is telling you to go full Forrest Gump and book your way halfway across the country, the best thing you can do is… you guessed it… confront the other person. 

That’s because tackling hard conversations can solve interpersonal problems, improve relationships and resolve situations that might otherwise get worse if left untouched. 

Here’s five ways to start a difficult conversation off on the right foot. 

How to have hard conversations and break bad news

1. Start from a place of curiosity 

Telling people things they don’t want to hear is an emotional experience. But instead of focusing solely on your emotions, get curious about how the other person might feel. During a hard conversation, try:

  • Actively listening to what the other person says
  • Understanding your conversation partner’s point of view
  • Asking questions and follow-up questions
  • Avoiding talking over or “steamrolling” them

While it might feel tempting to get defensive and justify your point of view, becoming combative will prevent the two of you from resolving anything at all. Worse, you won’t listen to what the other person has to say — and thus, they won’t hear what you have to say, either.  

3. Be clear about what you’re thinking 

Hard conversations must be had in a kind, respectful manner, but they’re not a place to mince words. Tackling tough topics involves communicating as clearly and directly as you possibly can. To that end, try to rehearse what you need to say before you say it for greater clarity and impact.

3. Use belief statements, not accusatory statements

“Belief statements” are what they sound like: you begin a statement with “I believe that…” and finish with a thought or belief you hold. By contrast, accusatory statements center around your conversation partner’s behavior: “You’re always doing this to me…” “You never listen…” “You’ve been a terrible partner…”

Belief statements help in two ways. First, they help you gain clarity about what you believe to be true, and hearing what you believe out loud can help you confirm or deny whether or not your beliefs are accurate. Second, belief statements are rooted in what you feel, so they’re not based on assumptions. As such, your partner will be more receptive to what you have to say.

4. Look for possibilities, and don’t make demands

In our latest podcast episode, we read about a girl who identified as LGBTQ. In order to feel more comfortable around her extended family, she asked her father to talk their relatives about their views on her sexual orientation.

In response, the father told his daughter that it was her responsibility to have that conversation, not his. After telling her this, the daughter grew cold and distant to her father. Clearly, she was hurt. 

We think the way the father handled this conversation was a misstep. Despite the fact that there were several ways to resolve the issue, the father took a very singular approach by saying, “Tough luck. Navigate this by yourself.” Instead, he could have come to a compromise with his daughter. He and his daughter could’ve:

  • Talked to their extended family together
  • Worked together to rehearse a speech that the daughter could deliver
  • Written an email together explaining to their relatives about the daughter’s orientation
  • …and more

Sadly, none of these options were explored, and so the father got what he didn’t want: a damaged relationship with his daughter. 

Let this be a lesson: hard conversations don’t have to be black and white. There are always multiple ways to approach a tricky subject, and the only way you can go wrong is by not considering all the possibilities at your fingertips. 

5. Don’t be afraid to get outside help 

Hard conversations are hard for a reason. But you don’t have to navigate them alone. Next time you’re about to tackle a tough topic or break bad news to someone, consult your network first: family members, friends, teachers, mentors, therapists and, of course, coaches like us

See what other people have to say, consider your options, and move boldly forward… because in the end, having a tough talk is always better than putting it off. 

Listen to our latest podcast episode of Am I The Bleep?! for several stories on people who had to break some pretty bad news… and whether or not they got it right.  

Here are the posts we examined this week:

  1. AITA for refusing to carpool with my coworker
  2. AITA for telling my daughter that she can’t expect me to do the hard things for her just because she doesn’t want to do them?
  3. AITA for telling my son he has to go to university, get a job, or get out?