Navigating ‘difficult conversations’

Sagar Satyal

Sagar Satyal

Navigating ‘difficult conversations’

‘Difficult conversations’ are inevitable, but we cannot grow if we avoid them

Operating with Emotional Intelligence means being smarter with our feelings. This entails tuning into our feelings, mindful of our deeper needs, objectives, and challenges at play. It includes acknowledging these aspects to direct our behavior to promote sustainable relationships. 

In our daily life, we come across challenges that are difficult to talk about. ‘Difficult conversation’ typically involves three aspects. 

The first is the situation where stakes are high, and it’s difficult to let go of the issue because it matters to us. The second is where opinions vary. The other person may disagree with us, which could lead to a conflict. In such a situation, remaining silent feels tempting, even though the issue continues to nag at us internally.

The third aspect of difficult conversation is when our emotions run strong and we have an emotional response that manifests in our behavior, and we don’t even have to verbalize our feelings.

Four positions of ‘difficult conversation’

Just like a map helps us identify where we are to navigate our journey, understanding these four positions could help us through a difficult conversation.

Position 1

Position 1 is helpful when we feel like we are feeling stuck in judgmental thoughts. In this state, we are focused on criticizing (‘They make my life difficult!’), judging (‘They are so inconsiderate!’), and demanding (‘If they don’t do as I say!’). We might fluctuate between blaming and shaming either the other person or ourselves.

In this position, it is not just another person’s needs and challenges we are disconnected from, but also our own. Our focus on blaming and shaming (either ourselves or the other person) keeps us from connecting to our deeper feelings and unmet needs. It is difficult to direct our behavior in a way that helps us meet our needs. 

So it is important to shift from ‘difficult conversation’ to ‘learning conversation’. From ‘They just don’t understand’ to ‘This is important for both of us’; from ‘Their emotions aren’t justified’ to ‘Their emotions come from their unmet needs’; from ‘Our strategies are incompatible’ to ‘Our deeper needs are universal’; and so on. 

Position 2

Position 2 is about taking the time to transform judgmental thoughts into concrete actions that affect us, our feelings, and the needs behind those feelings. It is also about transforming our thoughts into actions that we’d like from the other person to better meet our needs. This is a step up from Position 1, where we also think about the way interaction feels, whether it is undermining our own identity and how it might be affecting our reactions.

Position 3

Position 3 is about extending empathy to the other person’s needs, objectives and challenges. We don’t have to agree with their ways; but here, we try to understand: what needs are driving their behavior? What are their feelings? What identity of theirs is perhaps threatened that they find this conversation difficult? What requests could they be making of us?

Position 4

Position 4 is about zooming out from the conversation and seeing it as a neutral observer. Who are the people involved? What do they feel and need? What would help them resolve this together? How do their sense of identity impact the interaction? 

Taking this position can help us attain a bird’s-eye-view of the scenario, as there is a certain sense of detachment that comes from being a neutral observer without any preferences or biases. This position can be hardest to take, but it helps see things more clearly. 

‘Difficult conversations’ are inevitable, but we cannot grow if we avoid them. So it’s important to check whether we are stuck in judgments or transforming a difficult interaction into a ‘learning conversation.’ The difference almost always comes down to our mindset—whether we are trying to blame and shame, or looking to connect at the level of feelings and needs. 

To reach an agreement, understanding is the key. And there’s no understanding if we cannot transform a ‘difficult conversation’ into a ‘learning conversation.’ 

The author is a co-founder of My Emotions Matter, an education initiative that helps individuals and teams learn the mindset and skills of Emotional Intelligence. Learn more at