There are certain life skills that would significantly limit your potential if you did not have them. For example, if you did not know how to drive this might limit where you could go, who you could spend time with, or the jobs you could apply for. The same goes for a number of other fundamental skills such as reading, basic math, or using a computer. Could you survive without these skills? Of course you could survive but you would not be able to thrive and you quickly hit a ceiling. Author and podcaster Tim Ferriss sums it up best when it comes to the skill of having difficult conversations.
Tim Ferriss is spot on. If you cannot engage in a difficult conversation, it will significantly limit you in your personal and professional life. Imagine if you had a boss or a friend who could not have a difficult conversation with you or if they could not be direct and honest with you. You would be frustrated, you'd be irritated, and you would possibly lose respect for them. Imagine if you could not face a landlord, a colleague, or client with a difficult message. The limit this would put on you is significant. However, if you can engage in difficult conversations, you would possess a skill that many find challenging. How can you get better at engaging in difficult conversations and unlock your full potential? A critical ingredient is changing your mindset prior to having the conversation.
In this article, we will touch on why we avoid these conversations, various types of difficult conversations, and how we can better prepare our mind prior to having these conversations.
Why do we avoid these conversations?
First, the thought of having a difficult conversation makes many of us feel uncomfortable. We wouldn't mind avoiding the conversation at all costs because the thought of having the conversation is stressful and brings up a number of negative emotions. We do not want to upset the other person, we do not want to make things worse and the list goes on.
Look at the list below and see if your mind can be consumed with any of the thoughts below.
Do you tend to focus more on the downside?
If you are like most people then 90-100% of your focus prior to having the conversation is on the downside and a whopping 0% on the upside. If we solely focus on the downside, what is likely to happen?
- We are going to avoid the conversation at all costs
- We will carry the massive weight of anxiety on our shoulders all day long
- We will feel bad about ourselves for avoiding an important discussion
What if we focus on the upside of having these conversations?
- We would be excited
- We would prepare
- We would realize the sooner we had these conversations, the better it would be
- We would see these conversations as a chance to grow
- We would have the conversation to learn or practice this critical skill
- After having the conversation we would build trust, face fear, and so much more
It is no wonder we avoid these conversations if we are focused on the downside.
What are examples of difficult conversations?
Difficult conversations come up in every area of our life. On the professional front these happen both internally and externally. For those with client facing responsibilities you may have to deliver disappointing news whether it is related to portfolio performance, application rejection, or the situation may have changed compared to the initial expectations you set. These are difficult conversations that can strike anxiety in most relationship managers who are responsible for retaining the relationship. On the personal front these conversations come up in every relationship whether it is with friends, family members, or partners. For those with children, speaking with teenagers can be a difficult task because they may be defensive, combative, and emotions can flare up quickly. Listed below are a few examples of the difficult conversations you may face.
What can we do to better prepare our mind prior to having these conversations?
First, spend time focusing on the upside rather than the downside of having these conversations. I am not telling you to ignore the downside and spend 150% on the upside. Focusing entirely on the upside can be problematic because you might be in a form of extreme optimism which could create blindspots and keep you from preparing adequately. The key is to take a more balanced approach where you evaluate both the downside and the upside.
Your mental focus will shape your feelings about the conversation. Dr. Steve Maraboli said, "Once your mindset changes, everything on the outside will change along with it." Therefore if you can alter your mindset when it comes to difficult conversations you will prepare and embrace them with a different attitude. Many people want to want to dig their head in the sand when it comes to having a difficult conversation with a colleague, client, or important person but more often than not avoidance will make things worse. A simple exercise is to write down on a sheet of paper both the upside and the downside (similar to the picture below). Removing the itemized list from your head and putting it onto paper will enable you to view the conversation in a more objective manner rather than an emotional manner. When we focus on downside we can be overcome with emotion and paralyzed. Don't underestimate the power of look at different perspectives on a sheet of paper. Once you've written the upside and downside out a couple times I am confident that you will be able to develop the best mindset possible without having to write things down.
The ability to have a difficult conversation is essential in both our personal and professional life. Therefore, I encourage you to change your mindset by looking at both the upside and the downside. Now go out there and have these difficult conversations because the more of these conversations you have the easier they will get, and the better you will become.