What are you like at handling difficult conversations? Many of us tend to avoid potentially difficult conversations, often storing the stress until it eventually comes out very badly. Then there are those of us who struggle to find the right words, sometimes falling into well-practised, but unhelpful, ways of speaking.

While the above are all very human, one of the ways we can handle difficult conversations better is to prepare ahead with helpful things we can say. We might still be stressed, but the phrases we have prepared can help us to handle the conversation well.

Here are some suggestions, which you might like to modify so they are relevant to your situation and in your own words. See if you can identify two or three phrases that you can intentionally practise.

Starting well

  • Is now a good time to speak with you? I’d like to get an outcome about … that we both feel good about.
  • Have you got 5 minutes? I’d like to get some clarity on …
  • Thanks so much for letting me know of this concern. We obviously need to work something out.

Allowing people to save face

  • Sounds like there has been a misunderstanding.
  • We’re both under stress.
  • We’re different personalities.
  • I know it wasn’t your intention …

Demonstrating understanding

  • Can you help me to understand how you are seeing things?
  • I’d like to talk about … But first, I’d like to get your point of view
  • If I have heard you right, you’re saying that you have felt completely frustrated with me.
  • I have heard you say you haven’t been getting balanced feedback. So, I am guessing you have felt somewhat devalued and unappreciated.

Repairing relationships

  • I’m sorry for how I came across. That wasn’t my intention.
  • I mean this when I say it. I’m sorry for my part of the difficulty.
  • Can we make a fresh start? I think we both deserve that. From my side of it, I’m going to try and do so.

When needed, finding a better time to talk

  • I’m sorry. This is a bad time for me. I have to go to a meeting.
  • Let’s keep it respectful. Otherwise, we may need to arrange another time for this conversation.
  • Let’s arrange a better time to speak and think about some solutions that work for everyone.

Finding common ground

  • I agree that we need to work something out.
  • Yes, we can certainly both do our part to help.
  • We’re both here for the same reason. So, let’s talk about what we can both do to work together more easily.

Sharing your own perspective

  • The way I see it is …
  • My perspective is …
  • I know it wasn’t your intention. But when you complain to others about me and not speak directly with me, it hurts.

Exploring solutions

  • How about we try …
  • I’ll be open to any concerns you have. If I come across badly, will you speak to me sooner?
  • It really helps me when you …
  • Is there something I can do to help?
  • Here’s what I’m willing to do …

Finishing well

  • Thank so much for speaking to me / being open to this conversation.
  • We may need to speak further about this. But at least we have made a start.
  • Thanks for your willingness to do your part to help too.

Some workplaces develop scripts of helpful things to say to common scenarios that arise in their work. Such scripted options are particularly helpful for newer team members who may not be used to responding well to challenging behaviour from clients.

Scripts can also be useful for all of us at a personal level, helping us to break out of unhelpful habits and expand our range of responses.

But it is essential that the words we use sound natural for us and are said with goodwill and sincerity. Even rehearsed phrases need to sound authentic and spontaneous.

Which of the above will you intentionally practise?

Quote of the week

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” 

– Mother Teresa