It feels like the most important conversations are the hardest to have, doesn’t it? How many times have we known we should bring up a tough subject, only to chicken out when that toe-curling feeling of apprehension wiggles up in our gut?

What if I told you there’s a simple trick to it? Not just to opening the conversation, but to getting off to such a good start that you’re all but guaranteed that it will be productive? Well, you don’t have to take my word for it, because I’m cutting you in on the secret!

Thera Rising’s model for opening the dialogue is based on two principles we’ve covered recently:

  • Reciprocity. When we initiate a conversation, the other person mirrors our attitude a whopping 96% of the time!
  • Accountability and warmth. Treating others with both warmth and accountability sets the stage for lasting, positive neurological change.

By leveraging both of these together, we effectively prime the conversation for a good outcome. Importantly, this doesn’t mean getting exactly what we want! What it means is that we’re setting the stage for a constructive conversation that will yield lasting, positive results.

The five steps to opening the conversation are:

  1. Affirm the relationship.
  2. State the facts.
  3. Ask for help in understanding their behavior.
  4. State what you want.
  5. State what you’re willing to do.

1. Affirm the relationship

Because tough conversations are often corrective in nature, we may be tempted to start out on an adversarial note. But because of reciprocity, that’s likely to cause the other person to clamp down and become defensive. That kind of exchange isn’t the best for coming to lasting, positive change.

That’s why this step—affirming the relationship—is so important. By helping the other person feel secure, we set the tone of accountability and warmth that primes the brain for positive change.

Note that this is different than complimenting the person. Think about it this way: Which is more likely to get you to open up to a superior? Hearing that your last report was good (a compliment), or hearing that you’re an integral part of the team (affirming the relationship)?

2. State the Facts—Specifically and Accurately

We’ve all had conversations where both parties are talking past each other instead of to each other. But we can head that off by being upfront with the facts as we see them.

Be as specific and accurate as possible. We may want to collect data before the conversation. Use numbers. How often, how long, how frequently, how much?

Avoid the temptation to use inflammatory language like “You’re always…” or “You never….” Exaggerating is an easy way to make the other person double down and become defensive, because they’ll feel we’re treating them unfairly. Once we hunker down and become defensive, our odds of a constructive resolution plummet.

There may be some back-and-forth here. It’s likely that you and the other person don’t see eye-to-eye about everything that’s happened. That’s OK! Don’t get hung up on it. Trying to reach complete agreement about everything that’s happened in the past is almost certain to lead you to getting bogged down. You don’t need to agree on everything here; just make it clear what your perception is and move past the quibbles.

3. Ask for Help Understanding Their Behavior

Now that we’ve established our position, it’s time to get inquisitive. This benefits both parties. For us, it may illuminate the situation by revealing hidden motivations or obstacles that we weren’t aware of. And it helps our partner feel that their perspective is being valued. We’re not just coming down on them; we’re interested in the troubles they may be facing. Just having the opportunity to express their concerns can do a lot to help someone open up.

Another benefit of this step is that it strongly signals that we’re operating in the third thinking pattern—searching for solutions. You can read more about the three thinking patterns here.

4. State What You Want—Positively and Specifically

Step four is where we “turn the corner,” so to speak. We’ve set the stage and gathered information, and now we’re equipped to find a solution. Make sure you have a firm idea of your request before you engage in the conversation.

Be specific about this. We don’t want the other person to have to guess what we want. We also want to be positive in this step. That is, state what we would like the other person to do, instead of what we want them not to do.

It can be tempting to get hung up on the specifics of what’s happened in the past. These are often intractable, and often lead nowhere. We’re much more likely to reach a constructive resolution when we shift the focus to future changes instead of dwelling on the past.

5. State What You Are Willing to Do

You’ve probably heard the saying “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Step five is where we include ourselves in the process, becoming part of the solution.

Unlike the previous steps, step five will probably look different depending on your relationship with the other person. If you’re in a position of authority, like a parent or supervisor, this will likely include some kind of consequence. If you’re peers, such as spouses or colleagues, it’s more likely to be based around negotiation, concessions, and/or shared responsibilities. For example, you may say, “If you keep track of the most common client questions, I’ll create a cheat sheet of answers.”

And that’s it! Give yourself a pat on the back! You’ve not only opened the dialogue, you’ve set the stage for positive change and very likely strengthened the relationship while you were at it.

Tough conversations can be daunting. But when approached with a little skill and tact, they can be great opportunities for growth. Like all things conflict competence, this method isn’t bullet-proof, but it will give you a huge edge both in seeing the desired results, and in strengthening the relationship.

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