9 Tips for Tough Conversations


communicationThere are some things that you learn in a boardroom that can translate to what you do after work with your family, and there are other things that you learn from your family that can translate to your job. Whether you have one child or nineteen, one employee or ten thousand, knowing how to communicate about difficult topics is imperative to being great. Regardless of the role in which you seek to be great (parenting, management, coaching, mediating, etc.), avoiding tough conversations is a sure-fire way to hemorrhage relationships. Taking a note from Richard Weissbourd, a leading family psychologist and current faculty member at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education, simply imparting a list of right vs. wrong values to your children is not an effective way to manage problems. Certain conversations beyond the “Birds and the Bees” need to be had (no matter how difficult, awkward or embarrassing). Gun-related deaths, including homicide and suicide, are second only to automobile accidents according to Psychology Today; Dr. Jann Gumbiner, a clinical psychology professor at the University of California, argues that many teen suicides and deaths can be prevented if there are effective forms of communication between the parent and child.

The basis for having difficult conversations comes down to one main point - discuss what matters most:

1. Sort out what happened

Most difficult conversations are really disagreements over what happened and what should have happened. In order to understand both, emotions will have to be scaled back, and each person needs a chance to express their side of the story. Realize that your child won't be as pragmatic as you should be; it's your job to understand their perspective of what happened, the feelings they had about it, and what the controversy means to them.

2. Understand and manage emotions

Tough conversations can be deeply emotional, and many people have a tendency to let emotions get the best of them, making problem-solving difficult if not impossible. As you discuss the problem at hand, it is important that you identify both your emotions and your child's. This will allow you to understand their argument and see why they feel that their perspective is correct.

3. Shift your stance

Once a child or teenager is talking, shift your mentality from certainty to curiosity in order to gain deeper insight to their perspective. Asking balanced questions about his or her perspective, emotions, and experience can demonstrate that you care about the different perspective and are willing to consider different opinions. Once you have a clear understanding of your child's point of view, you can describe your concerns without having to diminish or discount the feelings or views of someone else.

4. Partner with your child

Once you have a clear understanding of your child's feelings and point of view, you can share your perspective. This will allow you to express your concerns and to provide your reasons for your initial position. Whether you decide to change your stance or not, this is a great chance to invite your child to partner with you in sorting out the situation together. Working with your children is always a better solution than dictating to them.

5. Listen to understand

Keep asking questions, acknowledging feelings behind the arguments and accusations they make. Active listening and responding (paraphrase their arguments/story back to them) to them is a great way to make sure you are understanding them correctly and to constructively share your viewpoint.

6. Share and reframe

As you both share, re-share and clarify your understandings of the situation, you may be able to bring up past experiences and you can clarify your intentions, which usually involve looking out for their best interests or keeping them safe.

7. Come up with solutions

In working together you can both brainstorm and invent solutions that work for both of you. Establishing a relationship in which both of you try to come to a win-win solution (that takes your child's perspective into account as well as your own) can increase trust. The more communication and input you both have the better the solution will be. You can look to certain standards (religious, personal, cultural, etc.) and understand that relationships that go one way rarely work.

8. Decide on a resolution

The solution to a problem will be a give-and-take deal. It may be as simple as promising to ask questions sooner or change your tone of voice, or perhaps sending a simple text message or calling now and then. Solutions do not need to be radical or drastic in order to be effective, but they do need to be mutually beneficial. Regardless the child's age, making solutions together can empower them to solve problems with you more often.

9. Keep communication open

The most important factor in relationships is ongoing communication. The more often two-way conversations can occur about touchy issues, the less difficult the conversations will become. Without open communication, problems are likely to occur more frequently, if only because of misunderstandings.  If you can figure out ways to communicate more often with your child, whether it's talking about a problem or discussing their day at school, you'll be a step ahead when it comes to solving problems you'll face in the future.

Whether you're dealing with a 6-year-old daughter who doesn't want to share toys with a friend or sibling, a teenager who seems distant and moody, a spouse, or perhaps a difficult client or employee, conversations will come up that can cause anxiety and frustration. Implementing these tips, largely drawn from research and practice by multiple psychology professors and the Harvard Negotiation Project, can improve your relationships at home and at work. Don't be afraid to have tough conversations. They're easier than dealing with the problems that arise from putting them off.

About the Author:

George Shaw is a writer and blogger who focuses on improving family communication with children and seniors. He also assists seniors and their families in Houston via http://www.seniorhomestexas.com/.