4 simple steps to help you start a tricky conversation

During my career as a social worker, I’ve engaged in countless tricky conversations often addressing personal issues with my clients. Through the years I’ve had a yellow post it stuck to the wall above my desk. I’ve used the 4 words on it to prepare for the best possible invitation to talk about some tough stuff. I’m guessing you’ve also had to dive in to some difficult conversations in both your professional and personal life.

Last week I helped you to nip conflict in the bud by recognizing it early on. The next step in mitigating an escalation of disagreement or in managing an existing conflict is a (sometimes) tricky conversation - best done face to face or by phone.    

The good news is that with a bit of preparation you can set yourself up for success. It’s all in the phrasing to create a safe space for the exchange of ideas.

Here are 4 steps to help you start a tricky conversation*

1. Observation

Describe the problem starting with the word “I” and using your senses. 

Eg: “I saw”, “I heard”, “I smelt”, “I felt” (touch). 

Avoid: Descriptions using labels such as bullying, disrespectful, defiant. Describe only the facts.

2. Feeling

Describe how the problem is making you feel starting with the word I. 

Eg: “I feel worried”, “I feel left out”, “I feel sad”, “I feel scared” etc. 

Avoid: Describing what you think - focus on what you feel.

3. Need

Describe what you need to feel better about the problem.

Eg: “I would like…”

Avoid: Providing a specific strategy.

4. Request

Suggest a solution that would benefit both people.

Eg: “Would you be willing to…?”

Avoid: Demands or wishes. Be concrete.

Here’s how it looks... 

Scenario: You have an assistant coach who is regularly late arriving to practices and it is now impacting the team. It’s time to have a conversation about it.

  1. Observation: Today’s practice started at 1pm and I noticed you arrived at 1:05pm.

  2. Feeling: I felt anxious and unsure while I was waiting for you to arrive.

  3. Need: (could pick one or both…)
    a. I need to feel good about maximizing our practice time with the team. 

    b. I need to feel that as coaches we are role modelling behaviour that we want to see in our athletes. 

  4. Request: Would you be willing to commit to arriving for practice 5 minutes early so we can touch base and be ready to go when the players arrive?

A reminder here is that conflict doesn’t go away on its own. If these conversation starters were easy there wouldn’t be so much avoidance and so... practice, practice, practice. In front of a mirror, with your bestie, or your partner. Nail down the wording and you’ll be golden.

Brene Brown tells us that once you start an uncomfortable conversation the feelings of stress lasts on average for seven seconds. Honestly you can do anything for seven seconds. Now it’s your turn. Take a deep breath, and jump in. Good luck!

Ps. Don’t forget to make a reminder post-it for your wall for the next time… ‘cause you know there’ll be a next time.

*based on the non-violent communication framework developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.



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