Embracing the Cactus: A Step-by-Step Guide to Navigating Difficult Conversations

by Kate Zabriskie

“I don’t like confrontation, but I’m tired of his abuse. He signed me up for another committee without asking.”

“I know I need to say something about her taking credit for my work, but how to start?”

“Another joy of adulting, I’ve got to have one of those thorny conversations. Not fun.”

Difficult conversations are inevitable at some point in most people’s lives — despite their lack of popularity.

Avoiding them only leads to bigger problems down the road. The good news? With a clear framework, tough conversations can strengthen relationships, foster growth, and achieve better results.

This step-by-step guide provides a roadmap for navigating challenging dialogues with calm, empathy, and assertiveness.

Step One: Prepare yourself. Before initiating a difficult conversation, take a moment to think about how you feel and why you need to have the conversation. What is the core issue you want to address? What are your goals and desired outcomes? Are you trying to affect a behavioral change, or do you simply want to be right? If the answer is the latter, you may wish to pause before starting a dialogue.

A well-formed goal statement is a good way to outline your intentions and keep your actions in check. For example, you might say to yourself, “I want to discuss the project schedule change that happened without my input. My goal is to be included in the future and find a solution that works for everyone now. I’m not placing blame.”

Step Two: Set the stage. As the saying goes, timing can be everything. Given that fact, schedule a suitable time and location for the conversation. The goal is to ensure you have privacy and few distractions. For instance, you could say, “I need to discuss something important regarding the project timeline. Can we talk in the conference room at 2:00 today?”

Step Three: Describe the situation objectively. Once you and the other person are together, it’s time to explain the situation objectively. Stick to the facts without judgment or blame, and use “I” statements to express your perspective. “I” statements tend to reduce defensiveness and create an environment of mutual understanding.

  1. Begin with “I feel” to take ownership of your emotions.
  2. Describe the behavior or situation objectively and without judgment.
  3. Explain the reason behind your feeling.

Example: “I feel frustrated that the deadline was moved again without consulting me. I’m now task-saturated and unable to get my work project work and other work done by the new milestone. I understand there may be valid reasons for the shifting timeline, and I would appreciate being included in decisions moving forward. This isn’t the first time I’ve been left out of discussions. I would also like to see how we might adjust the current schedule.”

Step Four: Allow the other person to respond. After you’ve shared your perspective, listen actively and allow the other person to respond without interrupting. Additionally, ask clarifying questions to ensure you fully understand their point of view and validate the other person’s emotions and experiences. You might say, “I understand that speed was the goal. Can you tell me how I might be included in scheduling decisions in the future?

Step Five: Identify common ground. As the conversation progresses, look for areas where you agree or share similar goals. Validating each other’s perspectives and emotions can help build trust and create a foundation for finding a mutually acceptable solution. For instance, you could say, “It seems we both want to deliver a high-quality project, even if we have different views on the timeline and how it gets adjusted.”

Step Six: Propose solutions. Next, collaborate and be willing to compromise while at the same time standing firm on your core needs and boundaries. For example, you might suggest, “What if we extend the deadline by two weeks? That way, we can ensure the project is completed without cutting corners.”

Step Seven: Summarize and confirm next steps. As the conversation comes to a close, summarize the agreed-upon solution and action items. Express appreciation for the open discussion and the other person’s willingness to work through the issue constructively. For example, you could say, “To recap, we’ll extend the deadline to allow more time, and you’ll provide an additional team member to assist me. Thank you for working through this constructively and for committing to including me to the extent possible when making future scheduling changes.”

Step Eight: Follow up. It’s essential to implement the agreed-upon solution and check in regularly to provide feedback on what’s working or if any adjustments are needed. You might follow up by saying, “Now that we’ve had a week with the new plan, how do you think it’s going so far? Is there anything we should tweak or address?”

Difficult conversations may never be easy, but with practice and a commitment to effective communication, they can become opportunities for growth, understanding, and stronger connections with those around us.

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team provide onsite, virtual and online soft-skills training courses and workshops to clients in the United States and internationally.

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