Are you dodging a difficult conversation?

Remember P.E. on a rainy day?  That’s when our teacher used to bring out the dodge balls. Unless you were a sucker for punishment, you didn’t just stand in the middle of the gym and wait for the balls to smack into you. You dodged.



It’s been a long time since I played dodgeball, but old habits die hard. Throw a bunch of change in the air and our latent instincts can pop right out – we duck, we dodge, if we’re really good, we walk away, head held high, barely bruised. Rain or shine, it can feel like every day is dodgeball day if there’s trouble in the air we’re trying to avoid.

I have yet to meet the person who says to me that they look forward to difficult conversations. Some people are really good at having them but most people I know prefer not to have to have them at all. We all know what happens if you don’t deal with that ball thought – it’ll keep coming at you.

Why do we dodge?

  • We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings
  • We have to talk about something that’s difficult for us (money with a spouse? concerns with a child?)
  • We don’t usually want to be the “bad guy/gal”
  • We’re feeling like we’re partially to blame (maybe that idea I had wasn’t such a good one after all)
  • We don’t like the person we have to talk with
  • We’re afraid to lose our temper
  • We’re afraid the other person will lose their temper

This list could go on and on, couldn’t it?

What’s the goal of a difficult conversation? It’s not to get the other person out. Dodgeball was a lone-survivor game. That kid helping you across the gym? They’d turn on you in a second in order to win. Lone-player doesn’t work well in most of our relationships anymore, though. At work, we’re pretty interdependent and in our personal lives, that win-lose mindset is a recipe for unhappiness and loneliness.

When I have to prepare for a difficult conversation, there are a few prep questions that I’ve found helpful. I’ve culled them from various sources, including lots of difficult-conversations-gone-wrong, so tailor them to your personality and needs:

1. Why am I having this conversation?

Take a few moments to reflect on the real purpose of the conversation. You may be angry, anxious, or feeling pressed for time, but try to boil it down to a single point of focus. This is helpful when you or the other person are tempted to spring off into other topics. (“oh yeah? well, you did that other thing last week….”)

2. What do I hope to accomplish?

Do you need a solution? Are you interested in sharing information? Have to communicate a decision? It helps to be clear on the outcome you’re after. If you need a solution and the other person is not ready to talk solutions, you can let them know your goal and set a time to come back.

3. What potential problems will arise? (this is usually what I think will make it “difficult”)

Will they get angry? Will you? Will they have a different suggestion? Push for a solution you can’t agree with? Take a moment to think from their point of view. People often act out in anger or fear; if you think you’ll be faced with that type of conversation, how can you acknowledge it up front? Naming the problem in the room often lets some of the tension out. (“I need to talk about something with you that may be uncomfortable. If we need to stop for a moment so you can take a break, I hope you’ll let me know. ” or “We have some difficult decisions to make and none of the possible solutions are going to make everyone happy. I’m hoping we can work together to figure out how to make the best decision given our circumstances.”

4. How will I deal with those moments?

If you know you get nervous and start speaking too fast, envision yourself taking some deep breaths. If you expect the other person to blow up, practice a few phrases and be ready to suggest a break. Does exercise before a difficult afternoon help? Then hit the gym!

5. What if?

Something won’t go the way you expected. In some cases, things go better than expected. Sometimes though, we get thrown a curve ball. Take a moment to imagine how you’ll respond to something wacky. Can you suggest a break? A reschedule? Will you try to lean back and relax when they’re sharing a new idea? How can you be open-minded during the conversation without losing focus?

The last step is after the conversation. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but think it over, what went well? What didn’t? Is there someone you can share your side with and get some reactions? And if you have one of those “Wish I’d said….” moments, maybe, you should go back in.  Like thank you notes, it’s never too late to let someone know you’ve been taking them seriously.

Do you dodge?
Do you have suggestions for how to catch the ball?

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