Four Essential Life Skills to Successfully Prepare for Tough Conversations

You can already feel your heart pounding before you tell your boss you can’t stay after work to finish up a big project. What if she doesn’t listen? What if she hands the project over to someone else?

Your voice is coming on too strong as you correct your business partner after he claims credit for an idea you initiated. He can’t get away with this! He always runs off with my ideas.

You avoid alone time with your partner rather than speaking up to suggest she has been bickering a lot recently. I don’t want us to sound like her parents. Can’t she hear herself?

Before jumping into the conversation, think about what you know about yourself and your definition of success. Prepare for the conversation by taking a self-inventory. Identify what is most important to you and what thoughts will serve you well in preparing for the conversation.

Know Your Conflict Style

According to Thomas and Kilmann, authors of a widely used conflict styles inventory, people fall into one of five conflict styles based on combinations of assertiveness and cooperation. Assertiveness refers to how much the person is expressing concern for self, and cooperation refers to how much the person is demonstrating concern for the other person or people involved.

Do you tend to value what you need more or less than the needs of others? If you are like most people, it depends on the circumstances, but you likely have a tendency to be on one side of the scale or the other. During tough conversations, an awareness of your natural conflict style can help you decide if you need to amp up your tone and sense of empowerment, or turn down your volume and make room for the other person to weigh in.

Know Your Values

As much as we like to avoid it, conflict happens for a good reason. All conflict is based in values and gives you a chance to learn more about your values as well as those of the other person. In Transforming Conflict Through Insight, authors Kenneth Melchin and Cheryl Picard remind us, “conflict is important for relationships so we can probe deeper to learn more about the underlying issues that need to be sorted out.” An awareness of your most important values will help you focus on what matters most in difficult conversations.

I have heard people stand up for one side of an argument, only to realize they neglected an important belief. Jamal, a soft-spoken father of an eight-year-old boy, had to have a difficult conversation with his wife regarding ADHD medication for his oldest son. Jamal was tempted to shut down the conversation when his wife said she wanted to give medication a try. While Jamal didn’t like the idea of his son being medicated, he realized his highest priority value was showing his son a united front with Mom, trusting she would not over-rely on medication if it didn’t provide the intended benefits.

Whether you most value independence, rules, courage, or teamwork, or any number of other defining values, knowing your top priorities will help you “pick your battles” and speak up in support of what matters most to you.

Know Your Story is … a Story

The job of our brain is to receive information from our five senses and craft a story of what is happening around us. We inevitably make judgments, assign motives to others and imagine how the story will continue over time. While you may have a lot of correct information, our stories are never completely accurate. Byron Katie, author and teacher of self-inquiry, lists four questions to ask ourselves as we notice the stories in our mind. Is it true? Can you absolutely know it is true? How do you react – what happens – when you believe that thought? And Who would you be without the thought? These four questions help us remember our story is just that – a story – and our conclusions may or may not serve us well during a difficult conversation. Being too sure our story is true without reflection needlessly armors us with defensiveness or worry.

Tara, a caring daughter was convinced her mother would be devastated when Tara told her she would only be visiting once a month. Instead of having her mother move in with her and her husband, Tara was sure the right facility to care for her mother was 120 miles away. Tara was terrified of the negative outcomes she imagined about being rejected by her mother and siblings. She was pleasantly surprised to be wrong – her mother accepted the news after only a few days of discord. Tara learned her mother and siblings were willing and able to work together to come up with a care plan that made Mother feel comfortable. In hindsight, Tara realized all her worrying had been based on an inaccurate story.

Taking the time to notice the story as a story in your mind will help you hold on to it less tightly and make more room for creative, positive endings to tough conversations.

Know Your Limits

Your sweaty palms or fluttering thoughts are a sign you care about the conversation and the people involved. Your brain may even be flooded with information coming from your body – your heart, gut, and other organs – that give you information about the situation at hand. Listening to these distinct feelings without judgment will help you know your limits. What do you need to embrace the difficult conversation? Possibly you would benefit from talking through your story and values with a trusted colleague. Or, you may need to time the conversation for your most energized part of the day. Noticing your feelings may also give you the strength and courage to trust yourself to pace the conversation, speaking up and giving yourself an opportunity for a break or additional time to think as needed. Knowing – and trusting – your limits will help you show up at your best for the difficult conversation.

Whether your tough conversations are at work or at home, and whether or not you are naturally assertive or cooperative, knowing yourself well will help you prepare to define your values and focus on what is truly important.

Affirmation: I know myself well and bring my best to tough conversations.

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