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How to Have Difficult Conversations When You Dread Conflict

There was a time when I struggled to communicate in my personal and professional relationships. I avoided telling a guy I was dating that I wanted to spend more time together. My team members were distracted with mobile devices during meetings, and I said nothing. So-called friends called only when they were in crisis, and I'd listen patiently until they ghosted out of my life once more.

Then, without warning, I'd erupt like a volcano. The receiver never saw it coming. Why? Because I never said anything the first, second or third time.

We've all had conversations we avoid, delay or deny until we’re beyond frustrated and being silent is no longer an option. The problem with this is that by the time you’re ready to have the conversation it’s impossible to stay calm.

Speak up before you blow up.

Back then, I expected others to read my mind or know via osmosis that I was bothered. What I didn’t know then was that I was scared. Terrified! It seemed easier not to communicate than to have conflict and risk being rejected.

Difficult conversations are uncomfortable. I get it. But being angry in silence is uncool, unhealthy and unproductive.

I’ve become pretty good at effective communication and want to share six tips you can follow to get what you need – while effectively managing your relationships.

1. Find your voice

Communicate and speak up for yourself even if your voice shakes. When I began speaking up for myself, my voice would shake, crumble and crack. The struggle was real.

Thanks to many therapy hours plus great mentors and coaches, I learned to communicate assertively. Over time, I became more comfortable, confident and courageous. I communicated my truth and my needs, and said "no" to things that didn’t work for me.

Assertive communication is the midway mark between passive and aggressive communication. Think of passive communication as a doormat, and aggressive communication as a hard kick at the door. In the middle, assertive communication is a gentle lean against a door that opens opportunities for honest and productive dialogue.

2. Acknowledge your feelings

It’s hard to listen, communicate or even think straight when you’re full of unacknowledged emotions. From a young age, most of us are taught to be seen and not heard. We’re told to “suck it up” and “be a big girl.” It’s no wonder we have a hard time acknowledging and communicating our emotions.

Give your feelings a voice and a name. Are you feeling anger, annoyance, confusion, helplessness, frustration, oppression, sadness, impatience, jealousy, rage?

Truth is, we must feel to heal. Otherwise our emotions will come out in other ways – perhaps through self-defeating behaviors or subpar health.

It helps to address matters when they come up, expressing yourself in “I” statements such as, “I feel hurt when you _____.”

When you’re calm and clear in expressing your true emotions, the other person is more likely to feel safe and open to the dialogue, not closed and defensive.

3. Reframe the situation

A while back a friend did something I labeled as selfish and inconsiderate. I choose to initiate a conversation. The miscommunication was uncovered, discussed and resolved, and our friendship continued. Had I allowed my snap judgements to fester, the outcome would have been different.

Leaping to unfounded assumptions can be disastrous. Before assuming ill-will, reflect on the other person and assume positive intent. Adopt an attitude of curiosity versus negativity. Seek first to understand. Then, speak up if something is still bothering you. Be assertive and confident but also compassionate.

Just as you need grace and mercy, grant others the same.

4. Keep quiet sometimes

Don’t mistake talking for conversation. We have two ears and one month for a reason: listening. There are numerous scriptures in the Bible that speak about strife, discord, dissension and keeping your tongue still.

Before speaking, ask yourself, will this be helpful and useful for the other person, not just you? Is the timing right? The moment someone enters the door is not a good time to offload.

Determine what’s important to you and where this falls on the priority level. Are you more focused on being right and venting immediately, or maintaining the integrity of the relationship?

Sometimes (not always, but sometimes!) the best response is no response. Everything doesn’t require your attention nor is everything an invitation for your opinion, criticism, contempt or point of view. Awkward silence can be your friend; don’t fear it.

5. Own your role

You have to accept and own your mistakes, and sincerely apologize for them. Any blaming or deflecting will derail the process and could inflict long-term harm to your relationships.

Being honest and taking responsibility for your contribution in conflict builds trust. Trust creates safety. Safety creates openness. Openness creates connection. And with connection you’ll have meaningful and fulfilling relationships.

The bottom line is this, relationships are built or torn down one conversation at a time. It takes two to tango. No matter how the dance is done, you’re half the problem. You always have the option to slow the dance down or leave the floor.

6. Level up your confidence and self-esteem

A healthy dose of self-esteem allows you to be more clear, confident and courageous about your needs. It will also help you figure out when to speak up and when to be quiet.

With confidence, every tug at your coat tail doesn’t rattle you. You’re able to separate the feelings of others from your own. You’re able to set your insecurities aside and see the issue more clearly.

You can practice confidence by improving your communication strategy. The key is to convey what you need in a way that gets you heard while respecting the other person’s perspective. Look at the two examples below. Which communication strategy will likely minimize conflict and improve the relationship?

Example One

“You’re a horrible spouse. You’re never home and we never go out. You don’t care about me.”

Example Two

“I know you work hard to take care of our family because you want the best for us.The thing is, when you’re at work or away from home, I miss you and feel alone.

I really want us to spend more time together. What can we do to fix this? What about a weekly date night?”

My guess is you picked example two.

Confident people focus on the issue and not the person’s character. Focus on win-win instead of “I win, you lose.”

Following these six tips will improve communication in your relationships and enhance your life.

It did for me. My voice no longer shakes when I speak up. In fact my communication skills have improved my relationships and have helped me build a successful career as a manager, leader, mentor and consultant.

What are you not saying that’s keeping you stuck or hindering your career or relationship progress? When you don’t speak up for yourself, you are conveying, “I’m okay with what’s happening.”

I’ve coached countless leaders (new, seasoned and emerging) to communicate with confidence and care. This has helped them reduce unnecessary conflict, stress, confusion and overwhelm, resulting in personal and professional growth and fulfilling healthy relationships.

If you’re interested in communicating more effectively, I’m happy to help you out with some proven strategies. Just drop me an email here.

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