The world is full of conflict.  We are surrounded by it 24/7. Sometimes we see it clearly, while other times it is more “under the surface.” In all human interactions and relationships, there is some level of conflict that drives the ongoing need to have difficult, uncomfortable, sometimes even painful conversations.

Here are just a few examples of “everyday” difficult conversation topics:

  1. You are not performing up to (my) expectations
  2. You are not going to get a raise, a bonus, a promotion, the role you wanted
  3. We need to change the scope of our services, and increase our fees
  4. You need to pay your outstanding invoice
  5. You have a significant balance due with your tax return
  6. You are exhibiting negative behavior, a sloppy appearance, or your personal “packaging” needs work
  7. We are going to change our process (“paperless”) or our software platform
  8. We are going to miss plan, be late, go over budget, have a big write-off
  9. We have not been selected, we have lost the proposal opportunity
  10. You are not responsive to emails, phone calls, etc.
  11. I have “messed up,” I am sorry, please forgive me
  12. You hurt me, but I want to forgive you
  13. You hurt me, and I’m not sure I can trust you
  14. I want to be a partner in the firm, the leader of the tax practice, etc.
  15. I am going to retire, leave the firm, take a new position

The Miriam Dictionary definition of conflict includes words like competitive, opposing, incompatible, a divergence of ideas, interests, or persons, a conflict of principles, and a mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.

So why does conflict exist?  Because we all have “selfish interest” and the world around us rarely “aligns” with the way each of us wants it to be.  Selfish interest shows up in four key areas:

  • Money - We all want more money and what it can buy and not less money.
  • Time - We all want more time. Actually, since time is limited to 24 hours per day, it is more accurate to say we want to spend or use our time to do what we want to do, when we want to do it.
  • Looking good - We all want to look good and don’t like people or situations which cause us to look unattractive, unintelligent or lacking in some way.
  • Feeling good - We all want to feel good, and be fulfilled, happy, positive and satisfied, and not fearful, unhappy, negative or unsatisfied.

The four key areas of selfish interest are closely interconnected.  Having or not having what we want in one area can also lead to having or not having in another area. For example, having the money we want can lead to both looking good and feeling good.  And being able to spend our time doing the things we want to do can lead to feeling good, too.  Likewise, looking good usually leads to feeling good.

So if having “our way” is important, why is talking about it so hard?  Why are conversations about the things we want to see happen referred to as “difficult”?  Perhaps it’s because we all spend too much time listening to our “little voice.” 

I know this is “weird” but we all have a little voice that is always talking.  Sometimes it helps by alerting us to danger.  But mostly it is negative and uninspiring, beating us up, calling us losers and failures.  Your little voice comes from a place of fear, talking you out of dealing with conflict, and urging you to employ the “strategy” of avoidance.  It even uses your selfish interest against you, warning that you may lose money, waste your time, look bad for revealing your selfish interest, or feel bad for causing hurt feelings. You might even fear “jinxing” yourself and not get what you want if you divulge what you need or want to see happen.

When our selfish interest is threatened or in danger of not being met, we begin to resent or have hard feelings toward the person or situation giving rise to the perceived threat or danger.  Notice the use of the word “perceived”?  That’s because things are not always as they appear.  This is exactly why we must have the difficult conversations required to investigate and understand the “truth” of what is really going on.

It we don’t have the difficult conversations we need to have, things are highly likely to remain the same.  The “cost” of living every day in conflict and worry is tangible, both in money and in other priceless “life is short” ways.  The impact on personal and organizational energy and “mojo” is real, tooAvoiding difficult conversations “subtracts” from your life and the lives of those around you, and never “adds.” It is simply settling for less.

To begin powerfully and successfully engaging in the difficult conversations we all must have, the following “mind-set” and attitude is required:

  • Stop living your life in fear – it is a self-imposed prison. As Mark Twain admitted, “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Remember that things are rarely as big, bad and scary as our little voice claims.
  • Stop employing a “strategy” of avoidance - it is insane. As often attributed to Albert Einstein, insanity is doing same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  
  • Concede that it is better to know where you and others stand, rather than operating in the dark. By having the difficult conversations, you might occasionally get bad news rather than what you want to hear.  But the more likely outcome of getting your interests and expectations on the table is to collaborate a “win / win” plan or solution for moving forward.
  • Learn some “grace.” Stop trying to get everything you want in your selfish interest bucket.  Instead, prioritize and focus on your most important needs and wants, and let the rest go.

Then, without further delay, identify the most important difficult conversation you need to have, and take the following steps:

  • Step 1 – Schedule the conversation. Sooner is always better than later.  It will probably take more than one conversation, so get started.
  • Step 2 – Prepare for the conversation. Most important is to disconnect from any anger you may have about the conflict.  Consider “rehearsing” with a trusted colleague or friend.
  • Step 3 – Have the conversation. Be honest, be real and be vulnerable. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It is better to have a conversation that goes poorly than not to have it at all.

Similar to riding a bike or driving a car, you can only become skilled at conducting difficult conversations by having them.  However, in addition to actual practice, you may want to further refine your conflict resolution skills by taking our self-study course, Managing Difficult Conversations Successfully, or by reading our Straight Talk Your Way to Success E-Book.

We will continue to help our clients learn and grow and succeed at life as they powerfully and successfully engage in the difficult conversations we all need to have.  If you have ideas or experiences to share, please post them so others can benefit.

Best regards,