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The Right Way To Handle Difficult Conversations

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It is not fun to confront a neighbor about his barking dog…inform a coworker that he has bad breath…or tell a friend that her behavior is inappropriate—but sometimes something must be said. Here’s how best to say it…

Ask permission before you stick your nose in. You think a close friend needs to rethink his comb-over, but you are unsure how he’ll react if you suggest it. The odds that he’ll respond favorably improve dramatically if you first get his go-ahead to raise a difficult subject.

Example: “There’s something I’ve been thinking about. I don’t know if it’s really my business to bring it up, but if it were me, I’d want someone to say something. Is it OK if I raise a sticky subject?”

Pick a calm moment. Your neighbor doesn’t mow his grass for weeks at a time. You have been stewing over the situation all day and decide to confront him when he gets home from work. However, people tend to be tightly wound when they first get home, making a tricky conversation that much more challenging. It is better to wait until he is relaxed. People tend to be calmer on weekends than on weekdays…after an hour or more at home than immediately after fighting traffic…and soon after a meal than when hungry. In the workplace, people are calmest when they are not facing deadlines.

If you’re worked up over the problem—or even about an unrelated problem—postpone the conversation until you’re calm, too.

Act as though it’s no big deal. A coworker has food on her face at an important lunch meeting. Minimize her embarrassment by sharing this information without judgment or embarrassment on your part. When the messenger seems embarrassed, the message inevitably seems more embarrassing. Simply describe the situation—“Mary, you have a little piece of broccoli on your cheek.”

If this person still acts embarrassed, add, “Don’t worry, it happens to everyone”…or “I don’t think anyone noticed but me.”

Whenever possible, tell the person in private. If there’s no way to escape the crowd, whisper or write a note to keep things confidential.

Don’t just raise a problem—also propose a solution. Your natural inclination when you share difficult information might be to blurt out the problem and escape the conversation as soon as possible, but this might leave the other party feeling confused or angry. After saying there’s a problem, mention a potential solution (unless it’s obvious), then check that everything is still OK between you and this person. By ending with a question, you help turn a confrontation into a conversation.

Example: “Jack, your dog’s been doing his business on my lawn and digging up my wife’s garden. Could you tie him up when you put him out back or keep an eye on him? Would that be OK with you?”

Assume the best. A neighbor’s loud music has been keeping you awake every night for a week. You feel like telling the jerk what you think of him. Instead, enter the conversation under the assumption that this person is unaware of the problem and would genuinely want to know. If people sense our dislike for them, they’re less likely to change their behavior for us.

Mix the good with the bad. The text in a coworker’s slide presentation is so small that no one can read it. Share this problem, but include good news.

Example: “I loved your presentation. You really covered all the facts. One thing—you might consider using a larger font next time. It was hard to read from the back of the room.”

Keep it focused. You finally get up the nerve to confront a relative about something that has been bothering you…then you mention a few other problems as well. Better to discuss only one tough issue per conversation. Presenting a list of quibbles might make the other person feel as if you’re piling on bad news—and the secondary issues could detract from your main point.

If someone confronts you, respond with grace, not anger. Let’s say a neighbor asks you to replace your rusty old mailbox. Even if you don’t think this is any of his business, say something positive, such as, “Thank you for letting me know. I’ll think about that.” If you decide you want to keep the mailbox, you may want to explain why—“It’s been in my family for years.”

Know how to duck a difficult conversation. When a problem is likely to resolve itself if we do nothing…the time isn’t right for confrontation…or you want to avoid an issue…

  • Suddenly “remember” a previous responsibility and excuse yourself.
  • Say, “Oh, I just remembered, I wanted to ask you about…” then raise a completely different matter.
  • Answer a difficult question posed to you with, “Well, what do you think?”
  • Dodge the issue when asked your opinion about something you dislike with, “I bet everyone will love it.”
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Source: Barbara Pachter, business consultant and executive coach, based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She is author of several books on communications issues, including New Rules @ Work: 79 Etiquette Tips, Tools, and Techniques to Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. Date: June 21, 2017 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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