4 Simple Phrases to Help Approach Difficult Conversations

I used to get all tied up in knots trying to find the right words before I would approach difficult conversations.

I’d spend so much energy thinking through both sides of various conversations, trying to predict and plan and prepare for how things might go.

I didn’t want dialogue to be messy or unpredictable. I didn’t trust my own ability to navigate them with compassion if I got triggered.

That was until I heard Marshall Rosenberg say that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

What a relief: I can do many things badly.

Demanding that I do things well or say things right used to be so inhibiting. I would avoid challenges, give up easily and ignore useful negative feedback. Allowing myself to do things badly, however? I’m in.

Learning is painful when we are met primarily with judgment, criticism and evaluation. If we want to embrace a growth mindset, we need a new way of talking to ourselves and others.

These days, I am much more willing to just dive in and get messy. I’ve surrendered myself to simply being in the middle of a continual process.

I’ve found it helpful to identify a few principles and phrases that help keep me humble, connected and learning. If you are approaching a difficult conversation, you may want to try one of them out:

1. Just Be Clumsy

“I might be clumsy as I approach this, but please bear with me as I try …”

Sometimes, it helps to just be transparent about our struggles and our intentions. Saying something as simple as, “I might be clumsy as I approach this, but please bear with me as I try …” can go a long way towards more connection and building trust.

When we acknowledge that we really don’t have it all figured out yet, and are asking the other person to work with us, we are more likely to create willingness and openness in return. Allow yourself to do things clumsily.

2. Own Your Bristle

“I know I bristled when …”

Speak with self-responsibility when you approach a charged topic. You might say something like, “I know I bristled at that comment; I think a lot of things came up for me in that moment …” When we can name our bristle, we neutralize its power and charge. We reclaim our power. We stop behaving like victims.

3. Speak in Three Time Zones

“I used to (past) … I’d like to (future)… I’m trying to (present) … ”

Anytime you are trying to change a dynamic, it can be helpful to acknowledge your shared history, be transparent about your vision for the future and ask for something concrete in the present.

“I used to get reactive and irritated when you brought this subject up in the past; I want to figure out a way to approach this with more ease in the future. I am trying to respond with more curiosity and openness now, and am wondering if you could tell me more about … / are open to hearing more about … ”

4. Highlight Positive Impact

“It means a lot to me to hear you say…”

When something moves you, shifts you or is important to you, let the other person know.

A few simple words like, “It means a lot to me to hear you say…” can work wonders in building trust and understanding. It also helps to focus on what is going well and moving things forward, instead of habitually focusing on problems.

Simple phrases create powerful bridges.

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I’d love to hear if you’ve used phrases like these yourselves, how they have worked for you, and what other phrases you’ve filed into your own collective toolboxes of interpersonal effectiveness! Feel free to leave a comment below.