Navigating Difficult Conversations

emotional wellbeing leadership
Emotional wellbeing

We've all been there. We've all faced moments in our lives when we need to have a difficult conversation we'd rather avoid. Whether with a co-worker, a spouse, a child, or a friend, starting a difficult conversation starts with the same thing. 

It begins with you.

It means managing your emotional response. When your mind races faster than you can control it and your words threaten to come faster than you can organize them, you need the skills to pause before engaging. 

And, as your heart races, palms sweat, and body shakes, you need the tools to de-escalate this normal bodily response to anxiety and fear. You need to monitor your physical response.

This takes time and practice. And often, we learn it best in the fire.

About two years ago, I was facing a difficult conversation. Truth be told, I was facing 7 difficult conversations. Back-to-back. 

As the manager of a coaching team for a digital health company, I was tasked with laying off half of the team due to budget constraints.

I knew it was coming. They didn't.

For several months leading up to the day of the layoffs, I played out the conversations in my mind. I experienced the wave of symptoms that accompanied them - the emotional ones and the physical ones.

In all of these "practice" conversations," I played out the worst case scenarios and, sometimes, the best. 

When the day finally came, I felt the emotional and physical turmoil, but it wasn't as consuming as I expected because I'd had time to prepare. With the preparation came more confidence and clarity to navigate the difficult conversations, one after the other. 

You may not always have the time I did to prepare for a difficult conversation that's facing you. But regardless of whether you prepare for months, days, or hours, you can still manage your end of the conversation for better emotional and physical wellbeing. 

Here are 3 ways to prepare when you need help navigating difficult conversations. 
  1. Pray. Before you do anything else, turn to God for wisdom and discernment. To navigate the emotional upheaval of a difficult conversation and ease the physical reaction in your body, pray. God is able to provide the peace that passes all understanding and calm your anxious heart. When you turn the conversation and the outcome over to him, you release some of the burden and responsibility you feel to say and do the right things. Often, he supernaturally gives you the right words in the moment. But even if you feel like you've stumbled and bumbled your way through the conversation, the outcome is in his hands, not yours.  
  2. Breathe. In times of anxiousness, we hold our breath. It's a normal physical response to stress, as is the bodily response to fight, flight, or freeze. In this state, we are unable to think clearly, find our words, or respond to what's in front of us. But as we slow our breathing, we decrease our blood pressure, slow our heart rate and reduce our cortisol levels which helps our body return to a more normal state. Taking slow breaths in through our nose and out through our mouth helps us prepare for and navigate difficult conversations more easily.   
  3. Reflect. Once the conversation is over, take time to reflect on what went well and what didn't. Even the best preparation doesn't always lead to the perfect conversation. Before you praise yourself too quickly or beat yourself up unfairly, take a step back and be a casual observer. What did you say that seemed to resonate and what did you say that didn't? How did you feel physically and emotionally and how can you impact those responses in the future. Don't skip this step because it can hold valuable clues to help you navigate difficult conversations in the future.

In this week's podcast episode, my co-host Annie and I kick off Season 2 of our Side by Side podcast by talking about how to lead yourself before you say a word in a difficult conversation. 

While we'd rather not navigate difficult conversations at all, it's a skill you can build with time and practice. 

Self-leadership is a crucial skill to anyone who leads anybody, and that's virtually all of us! Whether you're a parent, a manager, or teammate, you will navigate difficult conversations from time to time. 

Prepare today for that conversation tomorrow. 


Listen to this week's Side by Side Podcast >> Before You Say a Word



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