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Coach Kim: How to handle delicate conversations

By Kim Giles, Contributor | Posted - Mar 18th, 2019 @ 7:01am

SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim shares steps you can follow if you're ever worried a conversation might get heated.


I liked your last article about conflict, but I wondered if you could give me more specific instructions for having really touchy conversations. I have a difficult conversation coming up and I am afraid of it turning into a confrontation. Can you help?


Lots of people think they need improved communication skills, but the real reason we struggle to communicate about "touchy" subjects is that our fears get triggered. If we start to feel unsafe in a conversation, we might get defensive and protective of ourselves and our views. This might happen when you feel insulted, dishonored or criticized (fear-of-failure triggers). This may also happen when you feel mistreated or like you might lose something (fear-of-loss triggers). These fear-related emotions have the power to turn a conversation into an argument.

Fear is all about ourselves and our needs. When we are triggered, we tend to show up selfish in the conversation and when you show up this way, it can make connection difficult.

To avoid this, here are some simple steps you can follow before and during the conversation.

1. Make a decision about what you want to happen at the end of the conversation

Do you just want to placate the other person and avoid conflict, but without real understanding? Or do you want to connect, understand and learn about the heart and mind of the other person? Would you like to increase mutual respect and compassion, even if you don’t agree?

Make sure your intention is not to win an argument or control the other person because they can feel this kind of agenda and it may create defensiveness. If you're hoping to have some influence over the person, remember you have more influence when there is a connection versus when you try to control. Clarify your goal and make sure it is love motivated and honors what they want too.

2. Remember your intrinsic value is not in question

It is the same as every other person’s, no matter how this conversation goes. You cannot be diminished or made less than anyone else. Remembering this will make it less likely that your fear of failure will get triggered.

3. See the other person as having the same intrinsic value as you

Choose to honor their right to be different and think differently than you. They have the right to see the world the way they see it. Don't talk down to them and don't allow yourself to be intimidated by them. You are equals — even if they are younger or older than you.

4. Clarify what kind of relationship you want to have with this person

What kind of connection, influence, respect or understanding do you want in the relationship? How do you want them to feel about you at the end of the conversation?

5. Clarify what the topic is and what it isn’t

Ask the other person if they would be open to discussing that specific topic. If they aren't, honor that. Decide together what the limits of that conversation should be.

6. Address the underlying what and why for each person

What is this conversation really about and why is this topic important to both of you? What about this conversation frightens you or the other person?

You might think about this before the conversation starts or you might discuss these concerns with the other person. Asking them what they would like to see happen in this conversation is a great way to start. If you start with the end in mind, you may increase the likelihood that it will go that way.

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7. Take a minute and figure out what is relevant and what should be off limits

Consider setting some ground rules that would make the other person feel safer to have the conversation. Maybe bringing up past offenses should be off limits. What is considered "below the belt" in the conversation? What is acceptable and unacceptable? Let them know they can call you out, too, if you break these rules.

8. Set aside your agenda, thoughts and feelings, and focus on the other person first

Ask questions about what they think and how they feel and then listen. Ask clarifying questions if you need to and make sure you don't get triggered. If the conversation gets difficult, keep reminding yourself that you have the same value and that this is your perfect life classroom.

This important step is where you can show the other person that you value them by spending time listening and trying to understanding them. This helps validates their worth as a person and can make them feel safer with you. And the safer they feel, the more productive the conversation will be.

9. Ask permission to share your ideas

Once the other person feels validated and heard, ask for permission to now share your thoughts and feelings. If you have something you really need to share, asking permission might sound like, “Would you be willing to let me explain my beliefs, fears, or concerns with you?” or, “Are you in a place where you can hear my beliefs and still know that I honor and respect yours?” You might ask for no interruptions for a specific amount of time. You might also remind them of your intention and ask them to keep that in mind as you share. When you ask permission before sharing, you show the other person that you respect them. This, again, can make them feel safer with you. If both parties feel safe, conversations go much better.

10. Honor their answer

If they respond negatively and do not give you permission to talk, you should honor this and say “I respect that, no problem." This is important if you want to build a relationship of trust and could help this person be more open in the future.

If they respond positively and give you permission to talk, there are a couple of tricks to making sure you share without offending.

First, use “I” statements over “you” statements. This means you should speak about what you think, feel, see, believe and want instead of criticizing them. When you start with “You are…” or “ You do this…”, those comments may come off as an attack and trigger defensiveness. Instead, try "I feel..." or “I believe this…”

Second, focus on future behavior instead of past behavior because when you focus on the past, it can create frustration since it cannot be changed. You do, however, have some control over future behavior, so asking for different behavior next time is much more palatable.

If they have more to say, go back to step No. 7 and work forward from there again. Repeat this until you can thank them for taking the time to help you understand their thoughts and feelings. You may or may not reach an agreement or resolution, but if the goal was connection and understanding, my hope is that you accomplished that.

You can do this.

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Kimberly Giles

About the Author: Kimberly Giles

Kimberly Giles is the author of three books, including "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness". She is a sought-after people skills trainer, speaker and a master executive coach. For more information on her practices, visit her website.

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