Brian Hite, Ph.D.

Phone No: 818-430-4182
Email: Brian@BeginAgain

“If you think that it is necessary to judge your neighbor, then say this looking directly into his eyes, and say this in such a way that you do not create animosity.” Tolstoy

There are times in our lives when difficult conversations are necessary. These are situations when we have something uncomfortable and not at all fun to talk about with somebody who matters to us. Neither the person we’re talking to nor ourselves is likely to enjoy the conversation, but we feel that for the relationship to move forward, the conversation has to happen. These situations may run from the relatively benign (e.g., “please take the trash out when it’s full”) to critically important (e.g., “if you don’t stop drinking, you are going to die”). In these circumstances, we need a way to approach someone in a way that avoids exaggeration and misunderstandings, so that we get our thoughts across as clearly and honestly as we can. Dividing the conversation into six parts and ensuring that all parts are present at least once can help ensure that we are communicating as straightforward a way as possible.

First, get clear in your own mind what the problem is, what you are trying to achieve with the conversation, what might get in the way of you communicating your message clearly (e.g., tired, hungry, distracted, strong emotions), and what you might be able to use to maximize the likelihood of the conversation going as well as possible (e.g., remembering the importance of the person to you, specific evidence, controlled tone of voice). Technically, this part isn’t even a part of the conversation, since it happens before actually talking to the person, but it is absolutely a critical component of the interaction and easily make the difference between success and failure.

Second, clearly and specifically describe the problem as you see it to the other person. Do not exaggerate about the severity or frequency of the issue. Just lay out the problem as you perceive it to be.

Third, clearly communicate the importance of the issue. Why does the problem matter? Why do you care about the issue? It might be because the problem is affecting your productivity at work, or it might be because the behavior is causing you worry and anxiety. Whatever the reason you’ve chosen to have the conversation, make sure you communicate that reason as clearly as possible, again, avoiding any exaggeration.

Fourth, ask the other person if they see the problem the same way you do…or if they see the situation as a problem at all. No agreement about a solution to a problem is possible unless both people agree that there is a problem to solve and what, specifically, that problem is.

Fifth, once you’ve both agreed that there is a problem, ask the other person what the two of you can do to address the problem. What steps can the two of you agree to take that will, hopefully, eliminate the issue at hand.

Lastly, make sure to point out the potential goodness that will result if the problem gets solved. What’s the positive outcome(s) you both can expect from problem resolution? It’s also fine to point out the negative ramifications of NOT solving the problem, too. A sentence like the following is an example, “If we solve this issue, here’s the goodness we can expect; however, if we don’t solve the problem, here’s the badness we can expect.”

By ensuring that the conversation you have about the challenging subject matter contains all six of the parts outlined above, you can maximize the likelihood of the problem getting resolved in an amicable manner. Although structuring your conversation around the six parts above won’t guarantee success, including all six parts in your discussion will make it much more likely that, even if the issue is not resolved, your relationship with the individual you care about will remain intact…which means that the door will remain open to reengage the issue at a later time and with, hopefully, better results.

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