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3 Tips for Difficult Conversations 

Are you trying to prepare for a nerve-wracking conversation? Here, we look at some easy tips to help you feel more comfortable before you start a difficult a conversation.

Kara Large

Throughout life, you’re probably going to have a stress-inducing conversation at some point. At work, you might have to express a problem with a co-worker or bring up that you don’t think you’re being treated fairly. It can be easy to put off these conversations, especially if you don’t like conflict. You might be worried that if you complain, you’ll make someone upset. Even worse, you might lose your job.

When the risk is high, it can be easy to convince yourself that the problem isn’t so bad. So you ignore it. But the issue usually doesn’t just go away on its own. And, in the meantime, you continue to stress even more. 

When I avoid tough conversations, I only end up feeling worse. And, usually, when I can’t wait any more, I rush through what I want to say just to get it out. I want the conversation to be over as quickly as possible. But I end up compromising my communication skills and struggle to get my point across. 

This has happened to me so many times throughout my career. In one case it was so bad I ended up leaving my job instead of talking to someone. The situation felt so scary to address. And I didn’t have the tools I needed at the time to feel comfortable approaching my boss with such an uncomfortable topic. 

While working at a law firm, an attorney from another firm we regularly worked with was inappropriate with me. And it didn’t just happen one time. I was brand new to the firm and trying to make a good impression. I didn’t want to cause trouble or get in trouble myself for complaining. So I never said anything. Instead, I eventually left the firm because I didn’t want to keep running into that person that made me uncomfortable. And I also didn’t feel confident enough in myself to say anything to my boss. I thought I would end up losing my job for creating waves. So I left on my own terms. 

I wish I had known then what I know now about communication. When I started taking The Macklin Method Workshop, I realized how little I actually knew about how to communicate - even when the stakes were low. Now that I’ve completed the course, I feel like if I could go back in time, I would have handled the situation at the law firm so much differently. I would have had the conversation I was dreading. 

MacklinConnection’s Founder, Ron Macklin, noticed communication was a struggle for many people throughout his career. So he spent over 30 years developing a method, based on human biology, that allows you to discover how humans actually communicate. No matter if it’s an easy conversation, or one that keeps you up worrying at night, knowing some fundamentals of communication will help you with any discussion you have. And this will help you be better understood and better understand other people. 

In this article, you’ll find 3 tips to give you more confidence to face difficult conversations - no matter the situation. These communication strategies are easy to implement. You can start practicing them before you have any conversation to make the more challenging ones less stressful.  

Tip #1: Check in with Yourself.

If you are nervous about having a difficult conversation, one of the best things you can do is take some time to check in with yourself before you approach the other person. Determine how you want to present yourself. 

What is your goal? What do you want to make sure you say? How do you want to be treated? And how do you want to treat the other person? What are your expectations for yourself, and what are your expectations for others?

Connecting with yourself before communicating with another person sets you up to not compromise or shut down if the conversation gets tough. It allows you to set the standard before anyone even starts speaking.

A regular practice we have at MacklinConnection is called “creating your way of being.” This just means we set an intention for ourselves each day. We decide who we are going to be for that day. And we say it out loud. When you say something out loud, your brain doesn’t know it’s you that said it. All it knows is that it received a message. And it will start focusing on that message. 

We don’t see the world as it actually is. We interpret the world based on our own stories that we make up in our head. This is why one person can think a conversation went well, and the other person thinks they need a horrible job at communicating. The powerful thing about this is that you can change your stories, and, therefore, your experiences anytime. By speaking out loud how you want to be, your brain starts to create that story for you. (Remember, it doesn’t know that you were the one sending the message. It just knows it received data to process.)

When you are feeling tense about a conversation, you can check in with yourself to feel more confident. You can decide that you want to be empathetic or a good listener before the conversation ever starts. By speaking this out loud, you are setting yourself up to actually be this way during the conversation.

Tip #2: Decide on the best possible outcome for the conversation.

After you establish how you want to be during the conversation, you can do the same process for the conversation itself.  What is the best case scenario? List out loud to yourself all the ways the conversation is going to go well. At the very minimum, there will be more understanding between both people because of the conversation. If you are so nervous that you can’t think of any other positive outcomes, start there. And then maybe you can start to think of other ways that the conversation will go well.  

If you are someone who regularly thinks, “no one listens me,” taking time to set an intention for your conversation can help you avoid feeling unheard. Instead of being misunderstood, you can decide that you will say everything you need to say clearly as you talk to the other person. You will ask follow up questions to see how they are interpreting what you said. 

Tip #3. Remember the importance of breathing.

Breathing before and during the conversation will help to calm you down and make you feel more comfortable. You don’t need to study any specific breathing techniques, either. One of the easiest ways to achieve a more relaxed state is just to exhale longer than you normally would. Focus on making your exhale longer than your inhale. This simple breathing practice will allow you to relax. Feeling more relaxed can elevate your confidence if you start to feel nervous in the conversation. 

When we are mentally nervous, it can start to translate to physical signs. Your heart rate might increase. Maybe you start to get a headache or feel lightheaded. Breathing intentionally and slowly will signal to the body that you are safe. And then the reverse effect starts to happen. Because your body calms down, it will help keep your thoughts from racing. 

I’ve had a lot of success using breathing to help calm me down in stressful conversations - especially before and during job interviews. Right before an interview I’d set aside 5-10 minutes to slow my breathing down. I’d start the conversation much more relaxed than I would have been without intentional breathing. When I would have interviews before I knew about how important breathing is, I feel like I would start the conversation scattered. And I had a more difficult time focusing on the questions because I was so nervous. 

The way you breathe can be a tool to establish a more confident, comfortable state. If you start to feel like you are losing track of yourself during a tough discussion, just take a second and breathe slower. 

Difficult Conversations Can Be Handled Successfully

If you know you have to have a difficult conversation, avoiding it is only going to increase your stress. As you keep putting it off, it’s not like the problem just goes away. If anything, the more you wait, the more you are torturing yourself. 

But it is possible for you to be more confident before a difficult conversation. Even though the topic might still be stressful, you can prepare yourself so the conversation goes smoothly. 

You don’t have to rush into having the conversation. Instead, take some time for yourself to decide what is and isn’t acceptable for you and establish your intentions for the outcome of the conversation. And then, right before you have the conversation, focus on breathing. Try a breathing technique that automatically calms you down - like extending your exhale. And continue this as you begin the discussion. Anytime you start to feel overwhelmed, move your focus to your breath. 

These are simple tools you can use anytime to have better conversations - but they are especially helpful strategies for conversations that make you nervous. Even though you can’t control anyone’s actions, you can control your own approach and set yourself up for success.

If you end up using any of these strategies before you have a difficult conversation, we would love to know how it went. You can connect with us by joining our online community to access even more content and engage with others about what you're discovering. In our community, you can explore articles centered around sharing vulnerable, authentic stories to help you start to create the life you want. You can also access a library of courses and build connections with others who want to change the world one relationship at a time.