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Sometimes we’re faced with conversations that we need to have but would rather avoid. Whether they’re personal, embarrassing, or somber, we wish that the problem could just take care of itself. But if you prepare yourself for those tough conversations and use effective communication skills, you can get through the touchiest talks with grace.
Reach Out Tactfully
When you’re ready to invite someone to the table, should you send an email, text, or pick up the phone? If you need to talk with someone with whom you’re close, a quick text might do the trick. But if the conversation is going to be about a serious issue, you’re better off using the phone or talking in person. Texts and emails can be misinterpreted, and facial expressions can go a long way toward understanding someone’s feelings.
Face-to-face communication can be challenging when it involves a sensitive topic like interpersonal relationships, academics, or finances, but it’s usually rewarding. “Some topics feel easier to discuss over email or text, but we lose the emotion,” says Dylan H., a sophomore at The University of Tennessee at Martin.
Practice in Advance
Say you need to talk with a friend about the way she’s been treating you or need to talk out a problem with your partners for a group project. Intimidating? Definitely. But you don’t have to go into the conversation blind.
Reach out to a trusted friend, RA, or mentor who can walk you through what you want to say and how to say it, calmly and compellingly. Switch up your role-playing and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, too. That way you’ll have a better understanding of how you come across and how the other person might feel.
When you’re practicing, also think about what you hope to gain from talking things through. “The first thing to do is decide what you want from the discussion,” says Melinda Brooks, a psychologist at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Maybe it’s to make amends or just move on, but keeping an end point in mind will help you have a more meaningful conversation.
Watch Your Words and Body Language
Having a tough conversation really gives meaning to the idea that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. It’s good to be assertive, but you won’t get far unless you communicate in a way that gets other people to respect you.
In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors suggest using sentences starting with “I” to sound more understanding and less accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “You hurt my feelings,” try, “I feel upset when you borrow things without asking first.” This takes away the blame and opens up the conversation for a more productive discussion.
“If you feel you’ve been wronged in some way, it’s important to express that without sounding confrontational,” says Brendan T., a senior at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. “Say something like, ‘Can we please talk about (fill in the blank)?’ or, ‘I didn’t appreciate how (fill in the blank).’” Follow up with a question about how the situation affected the other person.
Listen to Other Points of View
You’re going into the conversation with your own experiences, perspective, and goals in mind, but so is the other person. Keep this knowledge in mind to help you navigate the talk.
Willy D., a senior at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, gives this tip: “Consider the needs of the other person. Ask yourself, ‘Why is he or she hurt? What does he or she need? How can I show that I care and address my concerns?’” Being an effective communicator means being a good listener.
When Greg L., a senior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, had a group project member with opposing views, he relaxed and realized his own overreaction. The project went smoothly after that. “It’s important to remember the purpose,” he says. “Not everything has to be perfect, so I can let it slide and we can move on.”
Keep Your Cool
At some point in the conversation, you and the other person are likely to have a disagreement. You might be tempted to give up, but remember that feeling frustrated is normal. If you need to step away or take some deep breaths to calm down, that’s okay.
Also remember that you’re not the only one struggling. Be honest about your needs while also being kind. Alexandra Hewett, a psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, Maryland, says, “If you’re not being truthful with other people, you’re ultimately not being true to yourself.”
Leave on a High Note
Sometimes a difficult conversation can be a breaking point in a relationship, but not always. Sometimes you have to learn from the experience, communicate more frequently, and accept the situation.
Being able to engage in difficult conversations is a necessary life skill. You might find yourself feeling awkward, and that’s normal; the other person likely needs some time to readjust as well. Be proud of yourself for expressing your needs and having a successful conversation in person. When it’s gone well, you can’t high-five or hug through text!
- Figure out the best way to invite conversation.
- Ask a friend to help you play out the scenario.
- Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice.
- Structure your sentences to be understanding, not accusatory.
- Stay calm if the conversation gets heated.
Keep your cool
Are your emotions getting the best of you while having a difficult conversation? Here are some ways to keep calm:
- Politely excuse yourself for a few minutes and take a quick walk.
- Take a deep breath. Repeat until you feel relaxed.
- Count backwards from 10, or even 100.
- If you feel like you can’t continue the conversation, ask the person you’re talking with if you can resume your chat at a later time.
Get help or find out more
Helpguide.org, Effective Communication
South University, Online Programs Community Blog, 5 Tips for Being an Effective Communicator
University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Clinical Research Education, Effective Communication