There are four words that, when we hear them, we stop in our tracks because we know they are going to be followed by a lot of other words we may not want to hear. This happens in both our personal and our professional lives. Those four words are.... "We have to talk."

Did you feel a shiver run up your spine? 

These words cause anxiety for both the initiator and the recipient.

If you are the initiator, you've been carrying around a difficult conversation for a while now. You've role-played how it will go, what the reactions will be, and how you are hoping it will end.

You've determined when and where you should have the conversation. And, you've come up with lots of reasons why you shouldn't have it.

If you are the recipient, first you may try to brace yourself for what's coming with some mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing, or you may quickly tell yourself it can't be that bad.

Or maybe you will immediately launch into a defensive mode.

Or, maybe you'll say, "this isn't a good time," or you'll run.

Putting all of the emotional baggage aside that accompanies the conversation, here is the one reason you must have this conversation.

It won't go away by itself.

The most damaging and common conversation mistakes we make when initiating difficult conversations can be avoided with some self-awareness.

A Self-Assessment Checklist

How can you move through this conversation with as little drama as possible? Here are 7 questions to answer prior to having the conversation.

  1. What are your objectives for this conversation?
  2. What do you believe is the other person's position in this conversation? What reactions are you anticipating?
  3. Based on your history with this person, how effective are they at pushing your buttons, or triggering you? How safe do you feel with them? Based on this information, how can you preempt triggers?
  4. How are your feelings about this conversation impacting how you will show up?The mere act of inserting a thermometer into a glass of water to measure the temperature changes the water temperature. Similarly, your disposition in initiating the conversation will impact how the conversation plays out. What is your personal temperature?
  5. How have you contributed to the situation leading up to this point? Have you owned that? Have you expressed that to the other person?
  6. Can you approach this conversation without blame or ego, and focus only on solutions?
  7. How aware are you of your own body language? Are you projecting a defensive or offensive message?

Alternative conversation starters

Softer openings can diffuse the situation. One of these may work:

  1. "I could really use your help with a challenge I am having."
  2. "I would love your perspective on this situation."
  3. "Can you please help me to understand something?"

It's also a good idea to schedule the conversation, and not rush through it. This allows both participants to be prepared, focused, and present. No one feels they have been cornered into a conversation they were not prepared to have.

Difficult conversations always flow best when both parties feel safe to have the exchange.

Conversation closers

When the conversation is concluding, both parties should feel that they have had ample time to express, and that they have been heard. Something like this may work:

  1. "I really appreciate you having this conversation with me. Is there anything else you would like to discuss?"
  2. "Are we good now?"

I hope these pointers can take the edge off of your next difficult conversation. It probably won't be nearly as challenging as you anticipate. And just in case it is, you'll be fully prepared to manage it from beginning to end.

Good luck!