People often complain that no one communicates clearly, or enough, nowadays. But the truth is that there is plenty of communication — most of it is just indirect, over text message and email, and often born out of a place of mindlessness (rather than mindfulness). Learning to communicate from a sincere, honest place in the present moment — rather than from a place of emotional regression — is not an easy task. But recognizing that good communication is a skill — not something that we can simply churn out without thinking about it — is very empowering. This realization becomes especially helpful for those times when we need to broach a prickly topic, and engage in what will probably be a tough conversation. Whether it’s an impending argument with a friend, a contentious talk with a co-worker, a long-standing issue with a family member or any other kind of potential conflict, cultivating good communication skills will prove to be very productive for you.
Here are 10 tips that will help you communicate — especially during trying times — so you can say exactly what you need to say without creating more drama.
1. Set an intention.
Before the conversation, sit down and think with a very clear focus about what you want to glean from the conversation. Then take this intention and write it down. Truthfully look at what you hope to accomplish. If it is to blame or to get an apology, then wait at least 24 hours, as you’re probably not ready to have an authentic, two-sided dialogue.
2. Watch your tone.
If you are the person initiating the conversation, make sure to approach the person with a welcoming, open tone. Make sure that you are not coming to them from a place of aggression, defensiveness or passivity. You might even start by saying, “I need to have an honest conversation with you.” This gives the person the opportunity to realize that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill conversation, while also providing them an open-ended request.
3. Recognize that mutual convenience matters.
Literally. Make sure to ask, “Is this a good time?” This very direct question allows the person to determine whether or not they are ready for the talk, showing them that their time and energy is a priority to you, regardless of the conflict. Waiting for a good time to have a difficult conversation can be the difference between a positive outcome and a negative one.
4. Use “I” statements.
If you’re pointing the finger (i.e. you did this, you didn’t do that, you made me feel X, you made me do Y), you not only put the other person on the defensive, but also position yourself as a victim. In other words, this discharge of anger might make you feel powerful for a very short amount of time, but actually puts you in a position of complete powerlessness. So instead of pointing the finger, take responsibility for what you may have contributed to the problem.
5. Slow way down.
Allow the person time to respond without interrupting or defending yourself. Give them the benefit of the doubt and stand in the possibility of being wrong so that you can at least hear their side of the “story.” One thing I can almost guarantee is that you’ll find their version of the truth to be a whole lot different from yours.
6. Step outside of yourself.
While you want to use “I” statements and think about how you contributed to the dynamic throughout the conversation, it’s equally important to consider alternative perspectives. Specifically, try adopting the other person’s perspective; you may even try visualizing them as a child as they recount their version of events, as it can help you access the feelings of vulnerability they might be feeling.
7. Do not try to characterize the other person’s identity.
For example, if you start by saying that the other person is “a liar and a cheater,” you are basically attacking their entire identity. Even if the person did cheat or lie, you need to keep the conversation localized in order to avoid escalating the conflict beyond its particulars. So rather than attacking the person’s identity, keep the conversation about their behavior. The former questions who they are, whereas the latter questions what they did. They can change behavior, but they can’t change who they are.
8. Ditch your expectations at the doorway.
Tough conversations are an exercise in mindfulness. While you can and should go into the conversation with a clear intention, make sure to loosen your grip on strict expectations. Expectations can perform more like premeditated resentments, setting you up for disappointment. So do yourself a favor and enter the conversation with an open mind.
Especially if there is a lot at stake, you may want to have a role-play practice conversation with a trusted friend before going in for the real conversation. Take a few minutes to play out the worst-case scenario and then the best-case scenario. The purpose is to mentally prepare and also to get feedback on things like tone, language choices and so on.
10. Evaluate yourself.
When the conversation is over, look at the intention you wrote on paper, and on a scale of one to ten, rate how well you stuck to your intention. This will help you going forward: good communication is a practice.
You may be good at day-to-day communication, but communicating difficult emotions is a whole other skill set, one that takes practice to master! Start with these 10 tips and you’ll be well on your way.