How to Have Difficult Conversations

Julia Pereira Dias
Feb 15 · 6 min read

How do we have difficult conversations? Any time we expect a conversation to be(come) difficult, it is because we assume that either the other person will reject what we propose or they will be hurt by what we share with them. I want to talk about the latter.

From https://aghlc.com/images/tough-conversation.jpg

I have had two conversations lately that I dreaded as potentially quite difficult. That is, they appeared difficult in my mind until the moment I had them. In both cases I anticipated the others to be hurt, upset or let down by me. The first conversation I had to have was with two colleagues, who I had been working with on a project. We all had invested our time, energy, and hearts into this project, which came very close to its actual launch. Except my guts clearly spoke to me and told me that I was no longer going to pursue it.

I am very good at listening to my guts. Had I lived my life in line with ‘common sense’ I would have never declined a high-paying consultant job to travel instead to Colombia on my own during the Guerilla wars without even speaking Spanish. I would not have worked in the Gaza Strip or moved to the Amazon rain forest with my baby and no income.

Example 1: Saying No

Sometimes, though, I hate what my guts have to say. Like this time. Saying no to a couple of dear colleagues and friends after all we had invested doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. But I know better than to ignore my guts. I had no choice but to face them. I didn’t even know what to say. So, I told them that. I told them that I had no idea what to tell them, but that I was out of the project.

We spoke for more than an hour, and every one of us came out empowered and relieved. Before we talked, I had fretted about all the terrible damage I was doing to them by speaking my truth. They would feel let down. They would lose their investment. They would lose their trust in me. They would think I was unprofessional. They would feel cheated. In other words, they would be victims.

Wasn’t I the considerate one? Is that not the kind of thinking we deem appropriate, caring, and responsible? No, it isn’t. It’s basically saying that I am more powerful than them. That they depend on me, that they are incapable of creating their own reality and happiness. It’s saying that I’m the bad one and they are my victims.

Except they are not. They are as powerful as I am, and they let me know it. They appreciated my honesty and clarity. My no gave them the opportunity to rethink and redesign the project so that it suited them even better.

Example 2: Full Exposure

A month later I found myself again with the prospect of a ‘difficult’ situation. I had written an article about how to respond to your child reporting sexual abuse, which relates a lot to my own experience as a teenager. This means that my parents and their reaction to my experience are part of the article. It is one thing for me to expose my own experience for the sake of sending my message. It is quite another to expose the people I love.

I chewed on this one. First, I thought, I’d just write the article, but won’t publish it. Once I had written it, though, I wanted parents to read it. I feel that it’s important. Even though my parents don’t read English, I couldn’t simply publish the article hoping they would never know about it. That is out of my integrity. Another conversation had to be had.

I asked my parents for a time to talk, but when the time came, I almost chickened out. Except I couldn’t, because my parents know me. They know that when I specifically ask to talk to them, there is something on my mind that needs to come out. I did my best trying to beat around the bush for a while. “You see,” I told them, “since I’m writing my book, I will have to include some of my own experience, so I just wanted to have a general understanding with you that this might entail some experiences I shared with you.”

Hem Hem, Haw Haw.

How could I tell them that I used their reaction to my rape as an example of how NOT to react? Would I not hurt them, expose them, humiliate them? Worse, I had never told them before how their reaction had affected my life over so many years before I learned to change my perspective. Surely, they would not be able to see that I have forgiven them. They would not be able to see my compassion. They would only feel shame and guilt.

Once again, when I finally pressed on against my fear and told them straight in the face, I learned my lesson. My parents listened. They gave me their perspective. They appreciated what I want to say. And my mother told me: You don’t have to protect us. It was a beautiful, powerful conversation that brought me even closer to my parents. It was pure connection.

People are so much stronger than we think. They do recognize honesty and know how to distinguish it from brutality. They are perfectly able to sense the compassion when that compassion is genuine. Telling your truth is incredibly scary and hard until you actually do it.

At This Point, A Word of Caution

It would be easy to conclude that all you have to do is jump into the conversation and trust that people can take it. Obviously, jumping in despite your fears *is* a prerequisite. The way you enter the conversation, though, makes all the difference. As long as you still wriggle around in self-doubt and/or shame about what you are going to share, chances are you are tempted to put at least part of the “blame” on them. It is an unconscious, albeit very unhelpful, behavior to shift the blame to the other in an attempt to feel less guilty of hurting the other.

Which is a glorious paradox. Nothing ever hurts another person more than guilt, blame, and shame. At the same time, the moment I assign guilt to anyone, I create an expectation that this debt be somehow paid for. I no longer share my truth for the sake of it. Instead, I expect a certain reaction — approval, legitimacy, consent — so that I can feel justified in my feelings.

That is a recipe for disaster. Only when I rest in confidence that my feelings and my truth *are* legitimate, the act of sharing them is success in itself, regardless of the other persons’ reaction.

Coming From A Place of Truth

If all I do is share what is happening for me, what I feel, what my truth is — and my truth is the only truth I’ll ever know — and what this means for me in this moment, there is no guilt to begin with. Guilt, if we must work with that idea, can only come from action that crosses someone else’s boundaries. Guilt is no result of what I feel.

When I enter the conversation from that point and I stick to it, my communication will naturally adapt. I will not imply that there is any guilt on their part; instead, I enter the conversation with the intention to simply share my own experience. That creates the space, which allows them to share their own experience — equally without any sensation of guilt or shame. Communication cannot become more engaging and empowering than that.

Try it out.

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