If you’ve ever had to initiate an honest conversation that involves the delivery of bad news or negative feedback, you can probably relate to the sense of dread that it can elicit. After all, some conversations have the potential to trigger a messy storm of volatile emotions.
On one hand, difficult conversations aim to create a deeper understanding between two parties, paving a path to positive change. But not always.
It’s no wonder that people frequently experience what’s called the “honesty-benevolence dilemma” when approaching difficult conversations. This dilemma, coined by Levine, Roberts and Cohen (2020), refers to the internal conflict between being both truthful and kind, particularly if you believe that they’re mutually exclusive.
So what can you do to make these conversations less daunting?
For starters, shift your focus. The fear of hurting someone’s feeling or triggering an angry confrontation focus on short-term consequences, which can amplify your reluctance to initiate a difficult conversation.
Instead, shift your attention to the longer horizon, which will allow you to envision a different set of outcomes, including a deeper level and trust over time. Healthy relationships are built upon open, honest communication. Both parties need to be vulnerable enough to share their feelings — and open enough to listen to what the other person is saying.
Give Yourself Time to Prepare
Before jumping into a difficult conversation, take some time to untangle your own emotions. Let’s say you’re sitting your teen down to have an honest conversation about the recent demonstrations and looting. What feelings is the situation triggering for you — and why? Taking a non-judgmental look at your feelings can help you understand your reasons for initiating this conversation, and why it’s so important to you.
Explore your motivation. Are you hoping that this conversation will result in long-term change that will benefit both parties? This brings up the concept that sometimes prosocial lies are appreciated in situations where the other person does not have the means to promote the change you want. Your motivation might be as simple as opening the door to future conversations, as is often the case when talking with children and teens about difficult situations.
Set realistic goals for the conversation. Is the other person physically, emotionally and/or developmentally, in the case of children, capable of doing or accepting what you’re asking of them?
Considering the range of possible outcomes, how firmly entrenched are your feet in the ground? Where are you willing to compromise? If you’re sitting your partner down to discuss a more equal distribution of household responsibilities, what solutions would be acceptable to you? If you discovered that a friend betrayed you, would you feel comfortable maintaining the relationship with a renewed commitment?
Asking yourself these questions and emotionally preparing yourself before engaging in a difficult conversation will allow you to handle it with greater ease and efficiency. It’s much harder to process information objectively in the heat of an emotional exchange!
Adopt a Benevolent Honesty Mindset
When Levine and her team studied the different approaches that people take to manage difficult conversations, they found that the best outcomes came from those with a benevolent honesty mindset. In other words, people who initiated a difficult conversation believing that both benevolence and kindness can coexist experienced better results.
They suggest that this approach can be incorporated into difficult conversations by stating your benevolent intentions before providing honest feedback (e.g., “Rather than let this fester, I want to get my feelings out in the open so we can discuss them and come up with a solution that works for both of us.”). Starting a conversation by reminding the other party of your desire to maintain or strengthen the relationship allows them to tune into the message more clearly. But don’t stop there, they say. If it’s appropriate for the situation, provide resources that can help facilitate change.
By adopting a benevolent honesty mindset, you can reiterate your care and concern for your friend while engaging in an honest conversation with them. Offer to help them find a grief support group — or even to accompany them to their first meeting.
The truth is, navigating difficult conversations is not a cakewalk, which makes it understandable why so many people try and avoid them. However, there is also a beauty to these conversations that outweighs the short-term discomfort you might experience.
How wonderful it is to unveil a truth you’ve been wanting to share … to strengthen a relationship after gaining a deeper understanding of one another … and to know that by engaging in a difficult conversation, you could be establishing greater trust. Difficult conversations are risky but can also reap benefits that can foster deeper understanding and positive change.
Asking for help is a sign of strength.
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