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Want to Make Difficult Conversations Easy? Try This 1 Counterintuitive Trick, According to Psychology

The anxiety you feel before entering a tough conversation can be greatly mitigated.


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No one looks forward to a difficult conversation, whether it’s with a troubling co-worker, a toxic boss, family, friends, or anyone else. We fear the consequences of having that discussion, picture the anger that might come spewing out, and even feel a pit in our stomach about the whole matter.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Difficult conversations are a part of life and frankly should be had more often. For example, I saw more instances than I can count in the corporate world where a tough conversation needed to be had with an employee or co-worker, and it never happened. It led to so much unnecessary tension, toxicity, wasted effort, and lost productivity.

I was recently having a discussion with a coaching client about a tough conversation she needed to have and she mentioned the work of psychologist Dr. Albert Bernstein and his classic 1998 book, Dinosaur Brains.

I was immediately taken by one counterintuitive finding Bernstein shares.

Having a difficult conversation doesn't mean you have to talk very much.

For tough conversations I always pictured having to outline all the things I would say, all the counter arguments I could make, all the pointed statements to share.

Wrong approach.

Bernstein says it’s far more important to listen, reflect, and observe. The more you listen, the more likely it is that they will.

And you get more of an opportunity to listen by asking fair questions rather than thinking of the next statement you’re going to make. I applied this immediately to a tough conversation I had to have. I set aside all the statements and points I wanted to make, and focused on listening and asking questions in response. I found the other party was much more willing to listen right back. I'm 100 percent certain it led to a better outcome.

Bernstein also says it’s important not to fall into a common trap where you're doing too much explaining. Explaining comes across as a veiled form of fighting back. It introduces unnecessary tension into the discussion. You’re much better off asking questions. And as you listen to their answers, it’s important to show empathy and try to truly understand, not judge. Ask yourself ,“Why are they saying this?”

Again, I applied this as well to the tough conversation I had to have. I'll admit it was really hard. I wanted to go into explaining mode on about five occasions but I resisted. When I really concentrated on asking myself why the other person was saying certain things, it was powerful. I could feel my “heat-meter” dropping.

Talking less and listening more allows you to stay calm.

You’ve probably experienced the opposite of this. If you start escalating the volume and voracity of your words, the other person will too. This leads to those things you wish you didn’t say, and just as important, you’ll miss hearing something important the other person was trying to say beneath all the emotion.

On another tough conversation I had before I learned of Bernstein’s methods, I wasn’t so calm. Later, I was told that I missed something the other person was trying to tell me. It was something critical that would have diffused the discussion and brought it to a more productive close a lot earlier.

When things get heated, the speed of the conversation escalates too. Bernstein says when you’re in listening mode you’re better able to enact another critical element of a positive difficult conversation, you can slow things down. When you slow the conversation down, it gives the other person (and yourself) the chance to think rather than just react. And again, a poor reaction in the moment is what leads to the kind of counter-reaction that typifies why we fear having these kinds of conversations to begin with.

In the recent difficult conversation I had that went well, I was slowing things down. It helped me to keep my cool, to listen better, and something I didn't anticipate--I could better read the other person and what they were really trying to say.

Finally, when it comes to talking less and listening more, that includes at the end of your conversation, too. It’s important to let them have the last word and resist the temptation to insert a last second barb that will literally undo all the progress you will have just made.

Again, I did this and it was easier than I thought it would be because the entire discussion beforehand wasn't as heated--so I didn't feel like I was giving up anything by giving up the last word.

Difficult conversations are difficult. Listening more and talking less makes such conversations easier in so many ways--give it a try.

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This post originally appeared on Inc. and was published September 21, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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