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Sometimes we’re faced with conversations that we need to have but would rather avoid. Whether they’re personal, embarrassing, or somber, we wish that the problem could just take care of itself. But if you prepare yourself for those tough conversations and use effective communication skills, you can get through the toughest talks with confidence and grace.

Reach Out Tactfully

When you’re ready to invite someone to the table, should you send an email, text, or pick up the phone? If you need to talk with someone with whom you’re close, a quick text might do the trick. But if the conversation is going to be about a serious issue, you’re better off using the phone or talking in person. Texts and emails can be misinterpreted, and facial expressions can go a long way toward understanding someone’s feelings.

Face-to-face communication can be challenging when it involves a sensitive topic like interpersonal relationships, academics, finances, or workplace dynamics, but it’s usually rewarding. “In person, you can gauge the other’s emotions. You’re also able to express yourself using body language, facial expression, and tone of voice,” says Joan R., a part-time student at Austin Community College in Texas.

Practice in Advance

Say you need to speak with a colleague about the way she’s been treating you, or need to talk out a problem with your advisor. Intimidating? Definitely. But you don’t have to go into the conversation blind.

Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, instructor, or mentor who can walk you through what you want to say and how to say it, calmly and compellingly. Switch up your role-playing and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, too. That way you’ll have a better understanding of how you come across and how the other person might feel.

When you’re practicing, also think about what you hope to gain from talking things through. “The first thing to do is decide what you want from the discussion,” says Melinda Brooks, a psychologist at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Maybe it’s to make amends or just move on, but keeping an end point in mind will help you have a more meaningful conversation.

Watch Your Words and Body Language

Having a tough conversation really gives meaning to the idea that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. It’s good to be assertive, but you won’t get far unless you communicate in a way that gets other people to respect you.

In the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors suggest using sentences starting with “I” to sound more understanding and less accusatory. For example, instead of saying, “You hurt my feelings,” try, “I feel upset when you don’t support my goals.” This takes away the blame and opens up the conversation for a more productive discussion.

If you feel you’ve been wronged in some way, try to express that without sounding confrontational or losing your temper. Let the person you’re speaking with know you’d like to talk about the issue and state how the situation made you feel. Ask how it affected the other person as well.

Joan says this works well for her. She explains, “I let the person know how I feel. It isn’t necessarily easy, but sometimes it must be done.”

Listen to Other Points of View

You’re going into the conversation with your own experiences, perspective, and goals in mind, but so is the other person. Keep this knowledge in mind to help you navigate the talk.

Willy D., a student at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, gives this tip: “Consider the needs of the other person. Ask yourself, ‘How can I show that I care and address my concerns?’” Being an effective communicator means being a good listener.

You can demonstrate your active-listening skills by maintaining eye contact and asking occasional questions. Joan suggests, “Let the other person know that you understand how he or she feels.”

Keep Your Cool

At some point in the conversation, you and the other person are likely to have a disagreement. You might be tempted to give up, but remember that feeling frustrated is normal. If you need to step away, that’s okay.

Also remember that you’re not the only one struggling. Be honest about your needs while also being kind. Alexandra Hewett, a psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, Maryland, says, “If you’re not being truthful with other people, you’re ultimately not being true to yourself.”

More on keeping your cool

Are your emotions getting the best of you while having a difficult conversation? Here are some ways to keep calm:

  • Politely excuse yourself for a few minutes and take a quick walk.
  • Take a deep breath. Repeat until you feel relaxed.
  • Count backwards from 10, or even 100.
  • If you feel like you can’t continue the conversation, ask the person you’re talking with if you can resume your chat at a later time.

Leave on a High Note

Sometimes you have to learn from the conversation, agree to communicate more frequently, and accept the situation. This is especially true in the workplace, where you may need to continue working with the individual despite personal differences or past issues.

Being able to engage in difficult conversations is a necessary life skill. You might find yourself feeling awkward, and that’s normal; the other person likely needs some time to readjust as well. Be proud of yourself for expressing your needs and having a successful conversation in person.

Take Action!

  • Figure out the best way to invite conversation.
  • Ask a trusted friend or family member to help you play out the scenario.
  • Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice.
  • Structure your sentences to be understanding, not accusatory.
  • Stay calm if the conversation gets heated.

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