Ten Easy Ways to Have Hard Conversations
Bill Cottringer

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” ~Ronald Reagan.

Even normal communication, which should be easy conversation, is an enormous challenge today. The sad reality is that very few people’s minds accurately or completely process what their ears hear our mouths’ speak from the thinking going on in our own minds. Now take the difficult conversations a student, teacher, friend, employer, worker, athlete, coach, parent, or partner have to engage in on a daily basis—about conflicts and differences that need talking through. Here the results of these difficult conversations can affect the quality of people’s lives in not so small ways.

Unfortunately ornery conflicts and annoying differences between people are an inevitable pain in life that we can count on always happening when things seem to be going smoothly. Here are ten easy ways to prepare to have these hard conversations and get better results:

1. View conflict as an opportunity.

In photography, the perspective or viewpoint from where you shoot the picture often determines the quality of the photo. The same is true with approaching a conflict. If you view the conflict as something to avoid or run from, then it won’t get resolved and will just reappear sometime later, with even more orneriness, complexity and vengeance. On the other hand, if you view a conflict as an opportunity to learn, grow and improve to a better place as a better person, then that is what will most likely happen. You usually get what you expect and attract.

2. Appear to be listening.

Good listening is a skill in great shortage today. Everybody has too much to say and too little time to say it and there just isn’t much time for careful listening. However, it is through good listening where you learn what needs saying most to get though a hard conversation. If you make the effort to appear like you are listening that is a good start to becoming a good listener. From that leaning position, you can greatly improve understanding and good communication.

3. Avoid preying.

Too often in difficult conversations that are looming over us, we sit and wait to pounce on the other person to work in our favorite thoughts and sayings in opposition to what they are saying. Worse yet, we prepare our conversations and strategies ahead of time in our minds. We are really only listening, not to understand, but just to respond cleverly. That is not the kind of healthy two-way conversation that is necessary to get though a conflict with a successful resolution.

4. Disregard differences.

Yes, difference can really be annoying, get in the way of good conversation and difficult to focus away from or ignore. But paying attention to differences never resolves a conflict. Only disregarding differences and building on similarities leads to a win-win outcome though to the other side of the conflict. Tolerance of differences in others will never go unrewarded with better interpersonal relationships.

5. Understand perspectives.

We are all products of the perspectives we adopt and use accumulated from our backgrounds, coming from what we read, learn and experience at home, in school, church, work and life. We view the world though these perspectives to make the best judgments and conclusions we can in regards to the believed truth of something. But a person’s perceptions that build their general perspective, are the most important reality that needs understanding. This builds empathy and the expression of empathy helps hard conversations go much easier.

6. Accept the person.

When a person senses they are accepted virtually unconditionally, they become free to speak from their hearts and this is the hiding place where most conflicts occur. If we do not make a conscious effort to communicate our acceptance of the other person, apart from his or her words, with the complete likeable and unlikeable package they come in, then there will always be an underlying defensiveness that hinders communication and especially stops conflict resolution in midstream.

7. Withhold disagreement.

Agreeableness facilitates open communication because there is no fear of being critically judged and argued with. You will always have disagreement with another person’s thinking, beliefs, and behaviors, but spoken disagreement usually doesn’t change anything. However, unspoken disagreement, especially where the other person is wrong, has more power to change things in time. Withholding disagreement, when you realize how important the issue is to someone else or how much investment has already been made in a particular outcome, is a kind sensitive practice that will never go unnoticed.

8. Look for similarities.

The quickest way through a conflict is to peel back the layers of disagreement until you find something that is agreed upon as common consensus. The path from here is to focus on what you have in common and what these similarities are that can overcome potential defensiveness and render a more supportive tone, which always opens up communication. When we over-focus on differences, a defensive tone breaks down good, two-way communication.

9. Expose the elephant in the room.

Every hard conversation has something going on which is obvious but unspoken, that makes resolution of a conflict seem impossible. This usually occurs with diametrically opposite opinions, different ways of viewing and dealing with conflict, wrongly assumed critical facts, and the like. When one person has the courage to expose such an elephant in the room, it usually dissolves the elephant and conversation moves onto a higher, more meaningful and satisfying plain.

10. End on Agreement.

No difficult conversation can end successfully on anything a positive note of agreement, no matter how small this agreement is. Anything else makes the conflict go underground and then pop up again somewhere and sometime, where it is least wanted or expected. By then there is more investment in a particular outcome by both parties and resolution is further out of reach.

Consider using a few of these alternative approaches to better prepare for hard conversations and making them go easier. Then you will be in agreement with the two great communicators of the opening and closing quotes!

“Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” ~Robert Frost.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice-President for Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security, Inc. in Bellevue, WA, and Adjunct Professor at Northwest University, along with his hobbies in being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the peaceful but invigorating mountains and rivers of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, “You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too” (Executive Excellence), “The Bow-Wow Secrets” (Wisdom Tree), “Do What Matters Most” and “P” Point Management” (Atlantic Book Publishers), “Reality Repair” (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Authorsden), and “If Pictures Could Talk,” coming soon. Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or ckuretdoc@comcast.net