As an attorney, my days are filled with difficult conversations. I may deliver painful news to people involving their legal matter, or speak firmly with another lawyer as I advocate for my client. Recently, I had to have difficult conversations with three different people who had let me down or hurt me.
The approach I try to take in all these circumstances is to “speak the truth in love.” That means speaking directly but with a clear motive of trying to help the person receiving the message to understand something, and not to punish, condemn or play victim.
Failure to initiate difficult conversations leaves us feeling disappointed or resentful and keeps us from being authentic and emotionally healthy. Avoiding these conversations may instead result in passive aggressive behavior or whispering our hurts to friends leading to gossip, triangulation of relationships, and fuel for our hurt.
Here’s what I’ve learned about initiating difficult conversations:
- Operate from a clear head not an emotional tsunami. Emotions are a gift, but letting them drive the moment leads to disaster. Initiate tough conversations when you are well rested, calm and emotionally even. This usually requires a reasonable “pause” between whatever has occurred and the time you choose to discuss it.
- State what went wrong with clarity. Using “I” statements can be helpful: “I was hurt when you weren’t there for me when I needed you,” or “I got overwhelmed when I had to step in after you didn’t follow through on your commitment.” Maybe even, “I have received complaints from clients/coworkers/teammates about your work.” If your communication begins with an email, don’t turn it into a long dissertation of drama. Use succinct bullet points and keep the tone businesslike. Having an in-person discussion is best.
- Know your goal. Be clear on what you need to remedy the situation. You may introduce the solution by saying “Here’s what I’ d like to see happen moving forward.” Another solution might be to offer to work together to remedy the problem, troubleshoot issues or even set a time to talk in more detail. In most instances the goal will also be to preserve or strengthen the relationship.
- Stay courageous in speaking your truth despite the response you get. If the person becomes argumentative, doesn’t listen or tries to turn the conversation back on you, stay firmly in your truth. Don’t cower under, say “never mind” or otherwise retreat until the issue is fully “aired out.” Your heart may be pounding but it’s critical to stay in the discussion in a healthy way.
- Keep calm. People aren’t used to facing conflict square in the eye. They are more familiar with passive aggressive approaches, or cryptic accusations on Facebook. It’s easy to criticize behind a keyboard. Talking on the phone or in person can trigger anything from fidgeting to wild histrionics. Stay calm and focused while delivering your comments with dignity and respect.
Here’s what I recommend if someone “speaks the truth in love” to you:
- Listen closely. A tough conversation might come out of the blue at an unexpected time. If it does, tune in as quickly as you can to be able to hear what is being said. That may be difficult to do if you feel a strong emotional reaction at the outset of the conversation.
2. Validate feelings before you respond. “It sounds like you are really disappointed, I understand how you might feel that way,” or a similar statement, lets the initiator know that you “get it.” Their feelings are valid for them. Whether their position is correct is another story. Pivoting into defensiveness or attack, or telling them they should not feel the way they feel, gets you nowhere and diminishes your credibility.
- Don’t shut down, become angry or defensive. Because most of us have not been exposed to healthy direct conversations, we can tend to think it’s a “fight” leading us to get into “attack” mode. The minute you take the content personally, you have lost the opportunity for growth and clarity. Your personal hurts can be triggered, creating insight for you on unhealed wounds that could use further work later. By focusing on the problem and not the people you will avoid a poor response.
- Let the initiator know you understand, and only then, explain your perspective. Giving your side of things out of the gate minimizes your effectiveness. State the problem as you have heard it before you begin to describe things from your point of view. Once it’s your turn, breathe throughout your explanation and speak as slowly as possible so that you can be clearly understood.
- Apologies are magical if they are sincere. An apology can be critical in many circumstances. You may feel you did nothing wrong, but if your action or inaction let someone down even acknowledgement of that fact is powerful. “I am so sorry my actions upset you; our friendship is important to me,” or “I apologize for misunderstanding the work assignment; I didn’t mean to let down the team.”
- Investigate how to move forward. Asking how to repair a situation is perhaps the most critical reaction to a difficult conversation. The simple question, “How can I make it right?” can open the door to great resolutions and healing. Only one of the three people took this critical step in my situations.
Speaking the truth in love can be challenging, but it provides growth for those who aspire to live with authenticity and courage.