Decoupling Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are ... difficult.

Why? You must simultaneously:

  • Create a positive outcome for you

  • Create a positive outcome for them

  • Create a safe space

  • Understand what you want

  • Request what you want

  • Listening to their wants

  • Manage unpleasant feelings

  • Deal with uncertainties

You can juggle all 8 dynamics at once (and make a mess).

Or you can be like these wonderful monkeys...

These monkeys are picking up each aspect of the conversation one by one, instead of all at once. They are simplifying their communication. Clever orangutans.

This post outlines a constructive (and linear) way to approach difficult conversations...

By the end you’ll have an actionable framework to bridge conflict with a partner, friend, or colleague.

PART 1: Lay the Foundation

1.) Hopeful outcome for you

Conflict is difficult because you don’t know what the other person is thinking. There’s a mixing of your intent and their intent, past actions and miscommunications. So before you talk, think about your ideal ending to the conversation. What – if achieved– will you feel good, regardless of other outcomes?

What you want can be deceptive. Many stay on a surface level: “I want you to put your socks away,” or “I want you to be friendlier to Laura.”

But our ideal outcomes often involve deeper needs … Acclaimed negotiation expert William Ury once helped two battling billionaires resolve a conflict (listen here to my conversation with Ury). The two business partners were consumed in a decade long battle for control of their 150,000 employee company. Both gave Ury a typical answer for what they wanted from the negotiation:  "I want the stock at a certain price, i want a non-compete clause and the company headquarters ..." William pushed back, "but I want to know what you really want … If there's one thing - what do you most want?" The billionaire thought carefully and said, "My freedom. Freedom, that's what I most want." He finally identified his deeper need. William asked, "what does freedom mean to you?" The billionaire wanted freedom to go on to other business deals and spend time with his family. Building off their deeper needs, the business partners were able to resolve the conflict while upholding their dignity.

Focus on your ideal outcome. What will it take for you to feel good?

Our ideal outcome often relates to our deepest needs. See this NVC needs inventory to identify what needs of yours aren’t currently met in your relationship. Maybe you want to feel more respect? Maybe more stability or trust?

2.) Hopeful outcomes for them

We enter difficult conversations with a mix of emotions. Anchor on the positive ones. Write down your positive intention for them in the conversation. Be ready to voice your this intention at the start of your conversation. It loosens the tension. You establish your desire for a WIN-WIN. Ask them to voice their intentions for you.

This exercise of exchanging intentions syncs you on the same team - even if both of you feel hurt; you know that the whole conversation is aimed at mutually beneficial goals. If you have trouble finding a positive intent, take some space or evaluate if you are in a toxic relationship.

3.) Create conversation ground rules & commitments

Lay down your intentions for how you want to conduct your conversation.

These could include:

  • try to understand each other’s perspective

  • favor a constructive future instead of belabored past

  • allow room for silence

  • have one person speak at a time

  • respect other person’s perspective

  • take pauses and patience as needed

  • acknowledge our win-win intentions

With your partner, fill in the blank: “This conversation will be successful if we do ________________ while talking.”

Voicing this may feel cheesy, but these commitments creates safety. Even if it is cheesy, please note that some monkeys do like cheese …

Laying the groundwork (your intentions for yourself, for them, for the conversation) makes the rest of the conversations exponentially easier. I’ve used this method with half a dozen couples and they all said the groundwork make the conversation be the most comfortable they had been in discussing their conflict in months.

You always have this foundation to return to if feelings get out of hand.

PART 2: The Conversation

4. Request what you need to achieve the outcomes:

Nonviolent Communication has a 4-step process to make peaceful progress in difficult conversations.

Share your:

1. Observations of the relationship

2. Feelings related to the relationship

3. Needs of yours not being met

4. Requests for others to meet your needs

This approach works because it allows you to speak your truth without playing the blame game.

As NVC founder Marshall Rosenberg puts beautifully, “First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are… follow immediately with a fourth component – a very specific request ‘Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?’ This fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.”

The conversation becomes simple: can we meet each other’s needs, or no?

Blame focuses on how the other person’s actions feel wrong. The NVC approach articulates what you need for the situation to feel right.

Blame assumes the other person’s motives. The NVC approach makes no assumptions.

The truth is, as demonstrated by David Bradford's model below, you can only speak to your perspective - the reality of your emotions, motives, and intention (reality 2) as well as the irrefutable facts and behaviors of your interaction (reality 1).

Visual courtesy of  Innerspace , a Startup Founder support community

Visual courtesy of Innerspace, a Startup Founder support community

Blame lies in speaking from reality 3 – the other person’s motives. Only they can speak to reality 3.

The organization Innerspace has a communication rule to  “stay on your side of the net” – speak only to your intentions (reality 1) and actions you perceived (reality 2). Allow them voice their interpretation. This framework, coupled with the NVC approach, allows you to respect each other’s perspectives and focus on productive action.


5. Listen to their request

Hear them out. What are their needs? What do they want?

If they blame you, ask them what they need to feel better – now and in the future. Don’t take it personally; As Rosenberg says, behind any blame is an unmet need.

6. Validate that you understand them correctly

Use the “mirror listening” technique - repeat back to them your understanding of what they just said. This step helps you two identify any miscommunication and clarify the situation. You can now respond to each other’s requests effectively.

Whoa this is exhausting. Here’s a video of an adorable baby monkeys doing cute things. Please take a break and enjoy.

7. Respond to their requests

Our natural inclination is to be defensive when we hear a request. We want to justify our past actions or argue that their request is unreasonable or impossible.

If you can’t accommodate a request, you need a way to address that respectfully.

One way is to use the LARA framework. Created buy civil rights activist Bonnie Tinker, the LARA framework helps you acknowledge the other person’s perspective while sharing your own. (You’ll notice that we’ve already covered the first two steps of the framework).

1.     Listen – already did

2.     Affirm their perspective – already did

3.     Respond – After the first two steps, respond directly to what the person said. Share your interpretation and opinion of their request. By saying this, you convey that the other person’s perspective deserves to be taken seriously.

4.     Add Information – then share any additional ideas, suggestion, thoughts you have on how to handle the situation. This step is sharing your unique perspective on the situation.

Some people listen and then immediately plow over the other person’s perspective by adding their own thoughts (just “listening” then “adding” their perspective). LARA helps the other person feel heard and understood – a critical step to them becoming receptive to your ideas.

8. Pause and slow down

If your head is hurting I don’t blame you. This is a lot to digest.

Don’t rush the conversation. To slow down, take a break and cool down when either of you need it.

9. Resolution – the conversation can result in a few outcomes:

1.     You can meet each other’s requests – in this case, write a commitment plan to make your intentions and desires explicit. This will make your foundation to support each other stronger.

2.     You can’t meet each other’s requests – in this case, you may need to evaluate if you need to break up or change the parameters of the relationship.

3.     You need more time to clarify your needs and identify new ones – sometimes we leave the conversation feeling more confused then when we entered it. This is often a symptom of not being clear about your own needs. In this case, return to step one and update your needs list.

The nine steps give you a practical approach for difficult conversations.

So if you feel like your next conversation is juggling 10 balls – slow down, walk through these steps to approach each ball one by one.

If all else fails, get a friend facilitator to help you.