Speak Up: Addressing Difficult Relational Issues

By Margie Warrell

Successful and influential people, happy couples and productive work teams all share a common quality. They all know how to speak honestly and frankly regardless of how controversial or touchy the issue AND they never do so at the expense of a relationship. As Ken Blanchard said, "Honesty is telling the truth to ourselves and others. Integrity is living that truth."

Still, many of us struggle to have those difficult - yet important - conversations to address bothersome issues. We try to hold our feelings inside but most of us are not good enough actors to hide them. The issues fester; eventually they are expressed as sarcastic remarks, innuendos, moodiness, and the silent treatment. "I was just kidding," you say, and the festering continues, since the very idea of addressing an issue makes you squirm. It just seems too hard.

The Price of Avoidance

The price you pay for putting off those 'difficult' conversations far exceeds the discomfort of having them. Not addressing issues and concerns in your key relationships can:

  • Diminish your ability to feel truly connected with others and happy in the present

  • Undermine the trust in your relationships

  • Limit the potential of being enriched by authentic relationships

  • Cause you to feel increasingly resentful, hurt, angry or anxious

  • Drain your energy that could be used to elsewhere to enhance the quality of your life

  • Lead to insomnia which, over a prolonged period, can lead to other health problems

  • Limit your productivity and suffocate your self expression

  • Negatively impact the mood of your home or workplace

  • Result in unplanned 'explosions' doing permanent damage to a relationship

  • Have a detrimental impact of your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing (clinical studies have repeatedly found stress as key contributor in cancer, heart disease, depression, and many other illnesses)

The following list of suggestions and techniques may help you be more effective in engaging in 'difficult conversations' and in doing so express concerns, wants and needs more fully

1. Sooner is Better than Later

In your key relationships, there will always be issues that need to be addressed. By dealing with them sooner rather than later, you will prevent them from escalating into really big issues and avoid stress and wasted energy. Some people choose to spend weeks, months and sometimes even their entire lives brooding about things that could have been addressed through conversation.

By giving voice to those issues that are niggling (or gnawing) at you as they arise you are doing yourself (your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing) a great service and freeing up energy for things that actually enrich your life rather than drain it.

2. Sooner Isn't Always "Now"

Although it is vital you don't put off having those difficult' conversations, that doesn't mean that right now is the best time. If the other person is in the wrong mood (including being tired), or you won't be able to have the conversation without interruption or distraction, it is best to wait or schedule a time when you can.

3. Preface with What You are Feeling

Often, the first stumbling block is starting a conversation that you think will be awkward and uncomfortable. If this is the case, try prefacing your conversation with saying exactly how you feel about having the conversation. Try simply sharing your nervousness or discomfort. For example: "I'd like to have a conversation with you about..... which I've been putting off because I feel nervous/awkward about it. But it's really important and so I'd appreciate if you would be patient with me as I try to express how I am feeling."

4. Listen and Understand

Before launching into your main concerns, first try and understand the other person's perspective. How do you think the other person views the situation or issue? Are they even aware that there even is an issue? For example, you may want to say: "Before I say anything I'd really like to get a better understanding of how you feel about/ view… (this situation or issue)."

By honestly trying to understand others, you will help them feel valued, reduce feelings of defensiveness, and encourage them to be open to hearing what you have to say. Really probe to find out what is going on in their minds so that when you raise your concerns, you will take into account their perspective. This will allow you to be more effective at bridging the gap between what you say, and what they hear (since the two are often not the same).

The most important thing to remember to LISTEN!!! As multi-skilled as you might think you are, you cannot listen properly if your mouth is moving (we women have a particular challenge here). Also, whenever you are communicating with someone, your body language and attitudes speak more loudly than your words. So avoid casting judgment - which includes shaking your head or rolling your eyes upward when you disagree.

After listening to the other person, it is often worthwhile to clarify what you've heard. You can do this by reflecting back to them. For example, "Okay, so correct me if I've got this wrong, but you feel like…you don't get the recognition you deserve/I am too uptight about things /I expect too much from you at times…" OR - "Let me play back to you what I think I just heard."

5. Share, Don't Blame

Now is your turn to speak. Remember the point of the conversation is to improve the situation or resolve the issue - it is NOT to prove yourself right and them wrong (as gratifying as it might feel in the short term before your conversation descends into a slinging match). A good idea is to use "I" statements and avoid "You" statements. For example, "I feel hurt when I am not acknowledged for the contribution I am making …" - OR - "I feel a lack of respect when I am spoken to as though I were not important." - OR - "I know I can be sensitive but I can't help but feel frustrated and hurt when I'm not asked for my opinion regarding…"

6. Focus on Resolution

Because this isn't about blaming the whole situation on the other person or reveling in your self-righteousness (both which will get you nowhere fast), move the focus of the conversation to the solution. For example: "So given where things are at here, what can we do to make it work better for both of us?" - OR - "I'm certainly ready to do my part and know we can work this out. How do you think we will be able to resolve this problem?"

It's okay if you can't find an ideal solution right away or achieve alignment on your differing viewpoints. At least the issue is out in the open and not just festering in your mind. Ultimately you are only responsible for yourself. If others don't react as you would like, don't get upset. Regardless of the other person's reaction, try to make a commitment to one another to take some action, however small, toward addressing the issues you've raised.

7. Keep Talking

Even if you are unable to immediately resolve the issue (because often you won't), keep the lines of communication open. If nothing else, make a commitment to one another to continue having regular dialogue about the issue until it is resolved. This alone can positively change the feel of your relationship.

8. Go Outside!

Consider taking your conversation outdoors (weather permitting) and enjoy a walk as you talk. Being outside in the fresh air and open space can shift the mood of the whole conversation to be more open and engenders a greater degree of expressiveness. Don't believe me? Try it!

9. Practice, Practice, Practice!

No-one is born with the expertise to address difficult issues. Confrontation may always be something that makes you feel uncomfortable. The issues are touchy, the circumstances often awkward and emotions often run high. It is normal to stumble as you try to express yourself and find resolution.

Instead of beating yourself up about your inability to articulate yourself or listen as well as could have, decide to learn whatever you can and commit to improving next time around. The fact is that the skills involved in expressing yourself effectively CAN BE LEARNED with ongoing effort and practice.

10. Be Courageous, Speak Up!

You cannot have integrity in yourself or those relationships which are important to you if you if you don't have the courage to address difficult issues. Sure, raising your concerns isn't always easy and can be incredibly uncomfortable, but doing so opens the window for those relationships to grow stronger, richer and more rewarding than they ever could otherwise.

As with everything in life, it is ultimately a matter choice... your choice! I encourage you to make a commitment to being a person of integrity in every aspect of your life, relationships included. Doing so will allow you to move past your fears and find the courage to give voice to those issues standing in the way of you fully enjoying your relationships - and your life - as much as you would love to.

Margie Warrell is a Life Coach, Writer and Speaker and is passionate about helping busy women enjoy more success and fulfillment in their lives.As a mother of four she specializes in helping working moms enjoy more balance and less stress. To subscribe to her free newsletter or arrange a complementary coaching session visit www.margiewarrell.com

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