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Six questions to ask yourself to keep a difficult conversation on track
"We need to talk."
These may be the four most feared words in the English language. Because as we all know from experience, what happens next is usually pretty ugly.
You know how it goes: Say you've got a big deadline at work. On Monday, you asked your partner for help cleaning up this week. On Thursday, you come home late and tired to three days worth of dirty dishes in the sink.
Without thinking, you march directly to the bedroom. "Is a sink full of dirty dishes your idea of help?"
They come back with, "Don't get mad, I'll clean it up in the morning."
From there, the argument escalates and one of you ends up spending the night on the couch.
It doesn't have to be this way. Believe it or not, it is totally possible to have a difficult conversation that doesn't end up in a knock-down, drag out fight. But you have to have some good tools to help you through it – like these six questions I use to help my clients keep their conversations on track.
Ask yourself these six questions to help keep any tricky conversation from breaking down:
1. What do you hope to accomplish?
Before you walk into a difficult conversation, pause and ask yourself, what would be the best possible outcome? Thinking about this can help you enter the conversation with a sense of curiosity about how to create a mutually beneficial outcome, which means you'll have a better chance of success.
The more that you can stay calm and centered, the more likely you'll resolve your differences gracefully.
2. What assumptions are you making about this person's intentions?
You may feel disrespected, annoyed, angry, or ignored by what's happened, but chances are that your partner didn't intend to hurt you. Be open to an alternative interpretation.
The most important work you do in a difficult conversation is on yourself. Your power comes from staying in charge of yourself, your purpose, and your emotional energy. Keep checking in with yourself as you go.
3. Is this conversation triggering a hot button issue for you?
We all respond to current events based on a lifetime of experiences. Take a look at similar experiences from your past. If you're being really honest, are you feeling more emotional than the current situation warrants?
Your attitude about the conversation is important. If you believe, based on past experience, that this conversation will be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you believe that whatever happens, something good will come of it, that will likely be the case.
4. How have you contributed to the problem? How have they contributed?
Sure, your partner may have left dishes in the sink, but did you specifically ask for help cleaning the kitchen? Maybe your partner cleaned the bathroom instead. Assume you have partial knowledge.
Take responsibility for the part you've played in creating any conflict or misunderstandings. Try to explain your actions, assumptions, and intention from the other person's point of view. Let the other person do the same.
5. What perceptions and feelings does the other person have about the situation?
Continue to cultivate an attitude of curiosity. Try to understand the other person's point of view so well that you could explain it for them. Acknowledge the other person's perceptions and feelings as legitimate.
To be clear, acknowledgment isn't the same thing as agreement. You can say "It sounds like you feel that this is unfair to you." That doesn't mean that you agree with the perception of "unfairness" or that you're going to act as if that perception is accurate. Just acknowledge that this is the other person's point of view.
6. What solutions can you create together based on your common concerns?
When you feel like you've reached the point in the conversation where you understand each other, you're ready to start looking for solutions. Asking the other person what they think would work can create a feeling of safety. If things become adversarial, go back to previous steps.
These questions won't magically make every hard conversation easy. But if you commit to using them, you may be surprised at the situations you're able to resolve without harsh words. The next time you have a difficult conversation coming up, run down this checklist — it gets faster and more natural the more you do it.