Tackle Tough Talks With Confidence

We’ve had a lot of difficult conversations in our house recently. With a high schooler and a middle schooler, normal (but awkward) discussions of changing bodies and feelings and less normal discussions about pandemics and social justice have become routine. Actually, I totally get into these discussions and the opportunity to share information and connect with my kids.


I never thought much about the “how” behind difficult conversations. I’m a child psychiatrist, so talking about uncomfortable topics is kind of my thing. The assumption in training was that we would have these conversations and figure the best way to do it along the way.


Don’t get me wrong, I’ve turned the wrong way in plenty of conversational mazes and found myself in some pretty messy exchanges. However, over the years, I’ve become strategic in approaching difficult conversations allowing me to engage in ways that are validating, meaningful and productive.


Let's dissect "the conversation" so you can approach your next tough talk feeling prepared and equipped to navigate whatever emerges.


#1 Purpose


The purpose of all conversations falls into at least 1 of 3 categories:

  • Giving information You have something to share with another person and the conversation is focused on that task.

  • Receiving information Someone has information to share with you and your main role is receiving that information.

  • Socially connecting Conversation is an important means of forming or strengthening a relationships. Information might be shared, but the real purpose here is developing a relationship with another person.

That’s it.


A conversation may serve 1, 2 or all of the purposes at the same time. However, the content will fit into at least one of these categories over the course of the conversation.


#2 State of engagement


What's each person’s motivation, mood, and the relationship between the participants. Each of you are participating in the conversation in a state of approach or withdrawal.


Someone in a state of approach enters the conversation cooperative and engaged. They might share an interest in the topic or the purpose in having the conversation. They’re more likely to actively participate in discussion and hold a conversation that’s open and receptive.


A person in a state of withdrawal might avoid having the conversation or put up barriers to engaging in the conversation. They may show up defensive, shut down, or even hostile. They might remain physically present but are resistant to engaging in active dialogue. (Cue the sullen teenager whose parents want to discuss a family media plan.)


#3 The stakes


Potential losses or gains come with every conversation.


The stakes could be minor. You might share about a new book that you recently read gifting your friend some new, but low consequence information. Your spouse might tell you that he forgot to pay the electric build. The conversation may lead to a brief, but temporary, rift on your relationship.


More difficult conversations often carry bigger stakes. Sharing the news of a long-awaited pregnancy can lead to joyful, but life altering decisions to prepare for the new family member. Firing an employee can be devastating to the employee and stressful to the employer.


While casual conversations take little preparation, it can be helpful to prepare for difficult, bigger stakes talks.


With these tips and a little preparation, you can learn how to communicate effectively, no matter what the scenario.

Try taking these steps to prepare for your next difficult conversation:


1. Clarify the purpose of the conversation. Think about what you want to communicate or understand from the conversation. You can even prepare your talking points ahead of time. Staying focused on the purpose will help you communicate more clearly.

2. Forecast the outcome. Role play the conversation in your mind head of time and practice how you might respond to different scenarios. While you often can’t predict how another person will behave in a difficult conversation, you can usually guess the 2 or 3 most likely responses and prepare how you will respond in each one.

3. Choose the place and time carefully. Don’t initiate a difficult conversation when you’re rushing to see a patient in the middle of clinic. Look for a quiet, private place to speak when both participants have enough time to fully engage in the conversation.

4. Consider the approach. If at all possible, have difficult conversations when each participant is at their best. People communicate more effectively when they are in positive or neutral moods, well-rested and have notification that the conversation needs to take place.

5. Prepare to listen. Avoid engaging in a conversation where your only goal is to get something off your chest. That’s not a conversation, that’s an announcement. Be prepared to listen to and consider the other person’s perspective in the same way that you expect them to listen to and consider yours.


With your blueprint in hand, you’re ready to go and tackle your next difficult conversation. It may not be easy, but you can do hard things. With these tips and a little preparation, you can learn how to communicate effectively, no matter what the scenario.