Have you ever been at a loss for words or made an emotional outburst during a tough conversation with someone? Or do you tend to to stay on track, but get accused of being domineering, annoying or bossy?
Difficult conversations are, well, difficult — but there’s a way to master even the toughest forms of communication (without making everyone else feel uncomfortable). Kelly McNelis, founder of Women for One (a group that encourages women to share personal and emotional stories), is an expert when it comes to empowering women. And thanks to her simple tips, you can ace those tough talks and come out feeling more confident than ever before. Here’s how:
Practice makes perfect.
Intimidated by the mere thought of a difficult conversation? As is true with anything in life, practice is key.
“It truly takes time to build confidence,” says McNelis. “It’s a good idea to start having the hard conversations with yourself, for practice. Remember that the hard conversations always begin with you.”
If you have time to prepare, ask yourself the hard questions first.
Think hard about the situation you’re in, why you want to (or need to) address an issue with someone else and what it would resolve within you.
McNelis explains that “this kind of clarity will do wonders when it comes to sitting down and talking to another person. You won’t hem and haw over your answers, because you’ll know exactly why you are there and what’s important to you.”
Don’t autopilot into reaction mode.
“Asking ourselves the tough questions helps us to become clear on who we are and to stand in what we value; we can return to these things as a touchpoint, so we aren’t merely in reaction mode during the conversation,” McNelis advises. “We need a strong foundation for a hard conversation, and the internal work is what helps us to build that foundation and our own confidence.”
If you let yourself slip into reaction mode, you lose your voice within the conversation.
Don’t forget to breathe.
Inhale, exhale, repeat. “Slow down. Listen to the other person and actively reflect what you are hearing so that they know you are truly connected to them,” says McNelis.
Have compassion (and not just for yourself).
“Compassion for ourselves and each other goes a long way toward finding solutions that work, so try not to get too frustrated when things get heated.”
Stay on track.
“These conversations can be challenging for everyone involved, so instead of taking things personally (especially if the conversation gets derailed by other concerns), come back to the issue at hand, as well as your intention. Speak to those things,” says McNelis.
And even if you don’t reach a positive resolution, it can be relieving to fully address an issue and finish voicing your opinion.
When things do go off course, be open to the idea that off-topic issues might actually be important.
“Hard conversations are not necessarily linear; it’s not like you find a solution at the end of one discussion, and that’s that. Sometimes, the seemingly off-topic thing you end up talking about is what you truly needed to talk about,” she states. “Be patient with yourself and the other person. Make room for what wants to come up.”
Be brave, know what you want and go after it.
McNelis believes that women shouldn’t fear being labelled as ‘bossy’ — being assertive isn’t reserved just for men. “Women are conditioned to be polite and to tend to other people’s wants and needs before their own,” she says. “Unraveling from this conditioning, and figuring out what we truly want for ourselves requires courage and risk-taking. We need to exercise more courage in expressing our thoughts, ideas and needs. We need to stop apologizing for our ‘strong’ opinions and step more directly into who we are and what we are passionate about.”
Accept that you can’t get everything right all the time.
Dear perfectionists: We all make mistakes — so forgive yourself for them.
“No matter how clear you are, or how much room you make for the other person, some conversations are difficult to have. You cannot predict or control how they will unfold, and this includes what you or the other person might say,” explains McNelis.
Know the difference between a difficult conversation and a difficult person.
“We have to be able to determine whether or not it’s best to stand our ground or walk away from the relationship and situation,” McNelis states. “I always encourage people to leave their egos on the table when they are in a hard conversation. This doesn’t mean the other person will do the same, of course! But when we stay connected to ourselves, our intention and the genuine desire for connection and understanding — which means not taking their reactions too personally — we might be surprised by how the other person reacts to us. Go into the conversation with an open mind and heart. Sometimes, your hard conversations will end in a place you don’t like, but no matter what, there will be a powerful lesson in there for you.”
Want more insight and advice on getting through challenging conversations? Then check out McNelis’ toolkit on the Women for One website.