Early January I had the honor and pleasure to be back at the webcast studio of Minnesota Continuing Legal Education in downtown Minneapolis. This time I was asked to speak about “The How of Tough Conversations”.

I will share seven elements of this presentation that should strengthen your confidence, insight, and skill in handling a variety of tough conversations. Regardless of the exact nature of your conversation or circumstances, many tough conversations are unpredictable, emotional, and draining. Therefore:

  1. Schedule your conversation early in the day, if you have any control over the timing, to feel as fresh, sharp, and positive as you can. Since we all have a limited amount of mental energy (and thus limited self-control) make sure not to have to exert unnecessary self-control on things that you can do after your conversation or that don’t need to be addressed at all! You want to keep sufficient reserves of mental energy for your difficult conversation.
  2. Prepare yourself physically:
    1. Deep breathing: 6 of them (about 55 seconds!) will already slow down your heart rate and provide your body with the necessary oxygen, including your brain and it’s amygdalae (your fear center, involved in processing emotional memory and responding to stressful situations) and your prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision making, personality expression, and moderating social behavior).
    2. Power posing: a great source to learn about the positive effects of power posing is a TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, but in brief, if you perform power poses your dominance hormone testosterone goes up and your stress hormone cortisol goes down.

  3. Reflect on your fears, needs, assumptions, and thinking flaws that may be at play in this situation. For example: you fear that you won’t be able to contain your frustration, you may be driven by the need to always appear in control, your assumption about the person could be that she’s driven by a wish to outsmart you and your most prominent thinking flaws are drawing premature conclusions and taking things too personal. A great resource on examining and correcting assumptions and thinking distortions is “How to Keep People from Pushing your Buttons” by one of my ‘mentors’ Albert Ellis.
  4. Know your expectations and make sure they are realistic. Check your partner’s expectations and how he perceives yours. Only if you ask questions about expectations and goals is it possible to align.
  5. Increase your awareness during the conversation: what do you sense in your body (tensing of shoulder muscles?) and which emotions are developing (anxiety)? Emotions provide valuable information to evaluate and guide your thinking and acting. Also use heightened awareness to understand what your conversation partner may be experiencing in the here-and-now. However check your assumptions about the person and delay your judgments – you’ll do yourself and the relationship a great favor.
  6. Ask more and better questions. Not questions to prove your point, but questions to understand the person better. Then listen and observe attentively. Remember, most of us are lousy listeners because we allow our own needs, fears and thinking flaws to dominate and we too easily give free reign to internal and external distractions. Hence the importance of awareness in the here-and-now.
  7. Distinguish between the content of a conversation and the relationship or process aspects of that conversation. A great article on this topic is: https://hbr.org/2016/01/defusing-an-emotionally-charged-conversation-with-a-colleague

Practice makes progress, so use these tips in your next tough conversation!