Last week we discussed the art of small talk. This week’s article on navigating difficult conversations will build on your interactional ambience and effectiveness. Difficult and sensitive conversations can mean different things to diverse people and settings. In this article, we will briefly highlight the various ways you can achieve effective communication despite potential limitations.

A beautiful starting point is to prepare mentally and emotionally for sensitive topics. Difficult conversations such as performance review, constructive criticism, breaking bad news, workplace harassment, termination discussions and negotiations, conflict resolution, and relationship issues are often not spontaneous; for this reason, you have the opportunity to articulate your words with a clear and calm mindset. It is never advisable to initiate a sensitive topic without contemplating its impact, your choice of words, your audience’s reactions, and how you will navigate the scenario with grace and understanding. Prepare mentally and emotionally to mitigate blocks, prevent escalation, and handle reactions without being emotionally drained.

Also, understand the role of active listening in handling conflicts and difficult subjects. The usual reaction for an angry individual, someone who feels wronged, or a person with higher oral authority is to speak above others or react strongly to make sure they are heard. If you want to achieve progressive results in your conversations, you must ensure the other person feels heard and respected. Acknowledge that contrary opinions are valid in each argument, and do not try to force your ideas on others. Instead, actively listen while acknowledging the feelings and opinions of those you are speaking to.

Another thing to do is to express your feelings with acknowledgement. As mentioned earlier, difficult conversations can come in different forms and settings. In professional settings, people often evade constructive criticism, terminations, or reviews without acknowledgement; this should not be the case with you. Openly use ‘I’ statement to express how you feel when discussing with colleagues or business partners. Do not evade the responsibility of weighty conversations because they prepare you for firmer ones. Learn to express your thoughts clearly and with acknowledgement.

Validate the feelings of others in your conversations. It is one thing to listen to others, but it is another to accept their claims. Just as you are prompted by the need to convey information or be understood, your audience feels the same. Be open to seeing the reality of perspectives and emotions that are different from yours and to accept them as valid to increase the receptiveness of your interaction.

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Additionally, set a constructive and non-passive tone from the start of your conversation. Let your audience know that your conversation is aimed at producing a positive result, not at throwing them off balance; show this in your exclusive use of non-attacking language. Be open to telling your feelings or facts as accurately as possible but without igniting the need for unnecessary defensiveness in your audience. Be constructive with your language and avoid passing blames to others.

Pay rapt attention to your body language and eye contact. The last thing you want to happen during sensitive conversations is for your non-verbal cues to convey completely different information from what your words say. As non-verbal cues are subtle and sometimes non-consensus, your audience may find them more believable; however, rather than allowing its implications to overwhelm or limit you, maximise them in exercising attentiveness and showing empathy. Pay attention to your body language during sensitive conversations and use them in passing positive messages.

Even during conflicts, you can find a common ground. Hard as it may seem or accept, there is always a point of agreement in every difficult conversation or conflict; the hardest decision is often to accept and agree with another. If you want to foster a sense of partnership with your audience, bridge the gap between you and your respondent, come to a non-hostile conclusion, and be willing to find and accept that common ground. Identify a shared common ground in your subject or discussion of conflict and embrace cooperation in effectively handling the situation. No one, including your respondent, wants to be totally wrong.

Stay focused on solutions. If you have made the effort to initiate a difficult conversation or to accept it, you are one step ahead to finding its solutions. However, it may be challenging to stay on track. Reject the tendency to digress in your conversations and focus on the positive outcomes that can emanate from discussing sensitive topics comfortably. Focus on achieving practical solutions to your subject of concern.

Furthermore, know when to take a break. Difficult conversations can sometimes go sideways or contrary to what you have planned. During heated conversations, recognise when to take a break. Impulsive actions or reactions during heated conversations often lead to escalation from both parties. Even with the most honourable intentions, take a break during heated conversations to allow both parties to cool down and better process the information being shared.

Ultimately, follow up and reflect on the conversation. Reflecting and following up on conversations would help you examine areas of lapses, identify how situations could have been better handled, improve future interactions, and reinforce agreements. When approaching different situations, you may not always be right, but you are sure to learn what to avoid. Take time to reflect on sensitive conversations and see how to follow up more progressively.

To sum up, difficult conversations and sensitive topics are often hard to navigate, but they are vital in building up interactive ambience and conversational effectiveness. While there may be limitations due to varied settings and people, you can achieve your communication goal by mentally and emotionally preparing, understanding the role of active listening, expressing your feelings with acknowledgements, validating the feelings of others, starting with a constructive tone, paying close attention to your body language, finding a common ground, staying focused on solutions, knowing when to take a break, and reflecting and following up on difficult conversations. Adhere to these tips in navigating your topical issues with grace.

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