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Communicatng in difficult situations

Most people want to avoid conflict and potentially stressful situations ' this is human nature. People often find it easier to avoid communicating something that they think is going to be controversial or bad, putting off the communication and letting the situation fester. 

A manager may hold off telling an employee that their standard of work is unsatisfactory.  A wife may put off explaining to her husband that she has scratched the car.  A child may put off telling their parents that they are struggling with classes at school. 

Most people can think of times when they have put off having that 'difficult' conversation, most people will also recognise that putting off the difficult conversation alleviates short-term anxiety.  However, constantly putting off difficult communication situations often leads to feelings of frustration, guilt, annoyance with oneself, anger, a reduction in self-confidence and ultimately more stress and anxiety.

By following some simple guidelines and using some well-tuned communication skills communicating in difficult situations becomes easier.

There are two distinct types of difficult conversation, planned and unplanned:

  • Planned conversations occur when the subject has been given thought, they are planned as the time, place and other circumstances have been arranged or are chosen for a reason.  Planned difficult conversations could include asking an employer for a pay-rise or perhaps telling your parents that you are leaving home to live somewhere else.   Although these situations are, by their nature, difficult they are controlled and as long as time has been taken to prepare and think properly about how others may react they can often end up being easier than imagined.
  • Unplanned difficult conversations take place on the spur of the moment; these are often fuelled by anger which can, in extreme cases, lead to aggression.  Our pages: What is Anger? and Dealing with Aggression cover these topics in more detail.  Often, after an unplanned difficult conversation we feel a surge of emotion 'regret or shame if things didn't go too well or potentially a boost to self-esteem and confidence if they did.  After such encounters it is wise to reflect and learn from our experiences trying to find positives and ways of improving future unplanned difficult conversations.

Emotion and Change

There are two main factors that make communication seem difficult: emotion and change.

People tend to look at emotions as being positive or negative.  Happiness is positive and therefore sadness must be negative, calmness is positive whereas stress and anxiety are negative.  Emotions are, however, a natural response to situations that we find ourselves in, and the only time that we need to be concerned is when we consistently feel emotions inappropriate to our current situation.  Emotions are therefore not positive or negative but appropriate or inappropriate. 

Often difficult conversations are about some sort of change, for example, changes in your job or ways of doing things, changes in finances or health, changes in a relationship. It is important to remember that change is inevitable. 

Different people handle change in different ways, some respond very positively to a change in circumstances whereas others may only be able to see problems and difficulty at first.   If possible it is beneficial to think about the positive side of the change and the potential opportunities that it may bring. It is better for an individual's well-being if they are able to embrace change as positively as possible, thus helping to minimise stress and anxiety.

Dealing with Difficult Conversations:
There has to be a balance between communicating something difficult and being as sensitive as possible to those concerned.  The skill set required to do this may seem somewhat contradictory as you may need to be both firm and gentle in your approach. 

Recommended skills include

Information Gathering
Make sure you have your facts straight before you begin, know what you are going to say and why you are going to say it.  Try to anticipate any questions or concerns others may have and think carefully about how you will answer questions.

Being Assertive
Once you are sure that something needs to be communicated then do so in an assertive way. Do not find yourself backing down or changing your mind mid-conversation, unless of course there is very good reason to do so.

Being Empathic
Put yourself in the other person's shoes and think about how they will feel about what you are telling them; how would you feel if the roles were reversed?  Give others time to ask questions and make comments.

Being Prepared to Negotiate
Often a difficult situation requires a certain amount of negotiation, be prepared for this.  When negotiating, aim for a Win - Win outcome ' that is, some way in which all parties can benefit.

Using Appropriate Verbal and Non-Verbal Language
Speak clearly avoiding any jargon that other parties may not understand, give eye contact and try to sit or stand in a relaxed way.  Do not use confrontational language or body language.

When we are stressed we listen less well, try to relax and listen carefully to the views, opinions and feelings of the other person/people.  Use clarification and reflection techniques to offer feedback and demonstrate that you were listening.

Staying Calm and Focused
Communication becomes easier when we are calm, take some deep breaths and try to maintain an air of calmness, others are more likely to remain calm if you do.  Keep focused on what you want to say, don't deviate or get distracted from the reason that you are communicating.

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