How to Ace an Awkward Conversation
“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.” Margaret Wheatley
We’ve all been in the uncomfortable position of needing to talk with someone about their annoying or unprofessional behaviour. But some topics just feel too tough to tackle, so we avoid discussing them at all.
There are countless reasons why we sidestep awkward issues. Many of us have never been exposed to seeing people have healthy, respectful conversations about differences in opinion, so our norm may be to evade these discussions all together. Or, we let things go too long and then lose our temper, speaking without thinking things through.
But underlying those reasons are three deeper ones:
- We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings
- We don’t want to rock the boat
- We don’t want to damage our relationships
Avoiding difficult discussions has negative impacts
When we don’t manage our concerns head-on we tend to talk with people who aren’t part of the problem instead of talking with the person who is part of the problem. By doing so, what we’re really seeking is support for our complaints rather than solutions for our concerns. This often manifests as gossip.
Not having tough conversations feeds inauthenticity, making us—and our relationships—disingenuous. After all, if we’re not able to have an honest conversation with someone, how can we ever develop a successful personal or professional relationship with them? Problems that are not discussed remain unresolved. As a result, they will almost always grow and lead to even bigger troubles.
Whether it’s time to review the house rules with a messy roommate, confront a disrespectful neighbour, or have a heart-to-heart with a challenging colleague, there‘s a way to do so with clarity, integrity, and grace. Here’s a 6-step problem solving strategy that helps address rather than avoid awkward situations.
The 6 P’s of Problem Solving
- PREPARE in advance
Forethought is essential before initiating an awkward discussion. As tempting as it may be to blurt out a long list of complaints in the heat of the moment, it’s wise to pause, reflect, and gather our thoughts first. It’s considerate to give the other party time to prepare as well.
Preparation leads to more calm and objective conversations because it helps us control our emotions and stick to the facts. Combining the words calm and conversation creates up a blended word that describes exactly the tone we’re striving for: Calmversation.
- PREFACE the discussion
No matter when an awkward conversation is about to go down, we need to preface it with an explanation. We also need to be very careful with word selection when bringing forward an issue. Try to include these three words in the first sentence: we, about, and because.
Let’s use the example of talking with a messy roommate about their housekeeping habits. Here’s how NOT to start the conversation: “I’ve had it with you. You’re such a slob! Why can’t you just clean up after yourself?”
That approach is confrontational. What we’re after is an opening that is invitational.
Here’s an alternative (note the placement of the three important words we, about, and because): “We need to talk about ways we can keep our apartment more tidy because living with clutter is taking a toll on our relationship.”
It’s respectful to ask the other person when it’s a good time for them to talk. That question could be presented like this: “Are you open to discussing this now, or would this evening be better for you?” Note that there’s no option not to talk about it.
Let’s break this down. With a single line of non-threatening dialogue we have accomplished three things: invited the other person into a conversation, suggested a solution, and explained why there’s an issue.
- State the PROBLEM
Now that a difficult conversation has been initiated, it’s unfair to slam the other person with a long list of grievances. Besides, rattling off a dozen irritations is unproductive. If we want to see real change, we need to focus on a single issue.
In the example above, the matter seems to be a messy apartment. But another, deeper problem has actually been brought to light, which is the fact that clutter is taking a toll on the relationship. Awareness of that level of fact will usually lead to a more meaningful conversation.
Once we’ve clarified the underlying concern, we can move on to the next step.
- Establish the PURPOSE
We need to let the other person know what our purpose is for bringing the problem up. What resolution do we hope to see as a result of the conversation? This is where we establish the changes we’d like to institute.
We need to be realistic and suggest proposed results that are fair, achievable, and mutually beneficial. We also need to invite the other person’s feedback and ask them to bring forward any concerns or solutions they have.
We can share our anticipated outcome by saying something like, “I’m hoping that by talking about this we can reach common ground and end up with a more organized home, at least in the spaces we share. It would also be a relief to have less tension between us.” We’re not asking the other person to turn the apartment into a show home. That’s unrealistic. Declaring that we’re simply hoping to end up with a more organized home and an improved relationship makes those results more likely.
- Share the PROOF
Awkward conversations need evidence. You must be able to support your concerns. But don’t go overboard or you’ll overwhelm! Three examples will usually suffice. Any more than that can sound like an attack.
Here’s an example of how to substantiate the clutter claim with a messy roommate: “The kitchen, bathroom, and living room are the spaces we share. Since we moved in here, I’ve been the one who vacuums, empties the dishwasher, and cleans the shower. Let’s work out ways we can share those tasks more evenly from now on.”
Hopefully, this statement of evidence will lead to a rational conversation with an agreed upon solution. Once you’ve decided together on the changes, it’s wise to write them down so you’ll have a document to refer to later.
- PREVENT future problems
The best way to avoid awkward conversations is to pre-empt them. We can do this by having frank and objective discussions BEFORE entering into agreements with other people or groups and BEFORE emotions run high by setting up guiding principles that work for everyone involved.
When we agree on facts in advance (who’ll do what, when, and how), we are empowering all parties to bring up inconsistencies much sooner than if we simply presume everyone will pull their own weight.
The Teapot Agreement
Here’s an example from my life of how this strategy has served me. Many years ago, a former roommate and I sat down for a conversation before we moved into a house we were about share. We had just signed a 1-year lease, and we decided it was important to discuss how we wanted our home to operate.
Our brainstorming led to a document we called The Commandments. It consisted of ten house rules that we agreed to honour for the duration of our cohabitation.
During that conversation, we also came up with The Teapot Agreement. We decided that if either one of us had a concern we wanted to discuss with the other, we would place a certain teapot on the kitchen table as an indication that it was time for a heart-to-heart. We would then choose a convenient time to talk, prepare a pot of tea, and open up the conversation. It worked every time.
Seeing or leaving the teapot on the table gave us both an opportunity to prepare for the chat. It also lowered our anxiety and made us better communicators. I’ve carried what I learned from that experience into all of my personal and professional relationships, and so can you.
Discussions can be so much less difficult when we follow The 6 P’s of Problem Solving. By preparing in advance, prefacing the conversation, stating the problem, establishing the purpose, sharing the proof, and preventing issues in the first place, you can learn to ace any awkward conversation.
Sue Jacques is a keynote speaker, professionalism and civility expert, and former forensic death investigator. She is the author of “What The Fork? An Unpretentious Guide to Formal Dining for Informal People” and is currently writing her next book, “Life Lessons From a Death Investigator: How to Live Like There’s No Tomorrow.”