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7 Things You Don’t Want To Say In a Difficult Conversation

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

The choice of words can make a conversation more complicated than it already is

You avoid telling your next- cubicle colleague at the office that his booming voice while talking on the phone interferes with your work. You keep putting off that conversation about getting a raise with your manager by giving some or the other excuse to yourself. Why? Because you fear that the outcome may lead to conflict, which we all tend to avoid.

Difficult conversations are anything that someone doesn’t want to talk about because of fear of consequences. When the conversation does occur, the involved parties feel and think more than what they say.

Indeed, there are times when silence speaks louder than noise and you can use the power of silence to enhance your authority. But there comes a time when avoiding a conversation makes the situation worse. You have an ‘enough is enough’ moment and decide to call a ‘spade a spade.’ What we speak after this decision and how we convey our point determines whether the difficult conversation turns into a learning conversation or an ‘I am right, you are wrong’ sparring match.

What Not to Say/Do during Difficult Conversations

Having difficult conversations may never be easy, but certain actions or words used on our part makes the outcome worse than the problem. In order to avoid a relationship turning sour or keep a bad relationship taking a turn for the worse, here are the seven things that we need not say or do during a difficult (or rather any) conversation:

1. Use words like “Clearly” or “Obviously.” A conversation is about a situation or fact, not the person. There are always two sides to every coin, and the other person’s perspective may vary entirely from yours. Words such as ‘Obviously,’ ‘Clearly,’ and ‘Of Course,’ invalidates the other person’s feelings and makes the listener go into the defensive. The other party feels disrespected and becomes all the more resistant to your point of view. Avoid such black and white terms.

2. Exaggerate and Generalise. Focus on the issue at hand, not on the history or backstory of the person at the other end. Using phrases like “You always/never” will make the opposite party come up with specific instances where she has resorted or not resorted to the stereotype of her that you have formed in your mind. The conversation then turns into a ‘You vs Me’ slanging match solving no one’s purpose.

3. Use judgemental phrases like “You Should.” Terms like ‘You Should’ or ‘You Should Not’ imply that things need to be in a certain way. People don’t like being told what they ought to do. These phrases make the listener feel powerless to make a decision and getting judged for his capabilities. He will become close-minded and stop listening to you. Instead, use open-minded phrases such as ‘One possibility is,’ or ‘Have you thought about’ in such conversations.

4. Beat about the bush. Difficult conversations get even more complicated when the delivery is muddled or the message is not clear. Most of the time, the listener will know that the subject you are broaching is complex, so the forced niceties will only make them impatient. Excess compliments or feedback sandwiches will only prolong the conversation and lessen its impact. Be direct and specific to the subject without being rude or disrespectful.

5. Blame others for your feelings. People don’t like being blamed. You are responsible for your response to someone else’s action; the other party cannot control your reaction and may not have foreseen it. Telling someone that you are hurt or offended by his behaviour is sometimes neither necessary nor productive for the other person to know. Instead, specifying how the action impacts your work output or the family environment will make him more receptive since the other party will also have a stake in the outcome.

6. Question someone’s intention. Human beings have a strong need to be recognised as moral and decent, and even the calmest of person will start defending herself when her sense of self is called into question. Calling someone ‘unprofessional’ or ‘unethical’ poses a challenge to her character, which is embarrassing and humiliating. Use alternatives such as this action ‘deviates from organisation’s goals’ and see the difference.

7. State “It’s Not Personal.” If someone has taken umbrage or gotten adversely affected by your action or words, saying ‘not to take it personally’ is pointless because the other person has already taken it to heart by now. Avoid using the phrase ‘personal’ at all during your conversation. Acknowledge that what you are saying is important and might substantially impact them and make them feel understood.

Remember that your objective is not to win the argument but to get the desired outcome. Next time build your confidence for a difficult conversation by keeping this checklist of things to avoid to ensure that the conversation is productive and well-received.

Sometimes saying 'No' at work makes a simple conversation difficult. There are ways to say No at work politely and effectively and still be seen as a team player.

And be proud of yourself for starting the conversation. It takes courage to do so.


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