Is there a conversation you’ve been putting off because it feels too difficult?

There are several ways to make the conversation easier and more likely to be successful. Preparation and listening attentively greatly improve the chances of having a positive exchange.

Let’s look at an example of a conversation none of us really want to have – talking with an elderly parent about stopping driving because their sensory impairment has made it too dangerous for them to continue. How do we start it and have it end well?

To help increase our chances of success, we need to prepare ourselves. First, we determine our goal – how would we like the situation to look after the conversation? A realistic goal in our example may be to keep the relationship on positive footing while also addressing safety.

Next, we should decide what we want to say and how best to say it. It can even be helpful to write a script for our opening comments, as well as determine the points we want to include later in the conversation. Just as important may be deciding what we won’t bring up – we’ll be less likely to reach our goal of maintaining a good relationship if we insist on bringing up our parent’s fender bender from ten years ago! Practice saying the prepared comments in a calm, non-confrontational way.

It’s very important to empathize with the other person, both as we’re preparing and during the exchange. Empathy is basically taking an educated guess about how the other person might feel about the issue. In our example, if we want to understand the impact of this issue on our parent, we can imagine not driving for one whole week. How would this affect our life and how would we feel about it?

Remember, though, that our guess is just a guess. During the actual conversation, we may be surprised at what is expressed. In our case, our parent may actually agree that driving isn’t for them anymore, but may want to save face with others or retain some degree of control.

Once we’ve prepared, it’s time to bring up the issue. Choose a comfortable, private place to talk. Pick a time when everyone is relaxed and has plenty of time to focus. Then, take a deep breath and begin with the prepared comments.

After starting the conversation, we need to listen much more than we talk. Listening carefully is crucial to a positive outcome. Fully acknowledge any difficulties that the other person expresses, making sure not to discount their concerns. We can restate what we heard them say, asking questions to clarify. If they keep repeating their objections, they are probably not feeling heard, so we need to redouble our efforts at listening for their feelings and what they need.

Don’t force a quick resolution in any difficult conversation. It may be best to discuss a big issue several times. Be careful not to hurry the process just because it’s uncomfortable.

It can be challenging to listen without getting upset. The issue no doubt brings up strong feelings in us, too, or it wouldn’t feel difficult. We need to do our best to stay calm and listen, taking deep breaths to relax ourselves. The other person will become more receptive to hearing our perspective when we’ve focused on theirs first. Once we’ve heard each other out, the conversation becomes easier and we can begin to fashion a solution together.

No one likes bringing up touchy subjects, but careful preparation and listening can help us successfully navigate difficult conversations.