Difficult Conversations

12/03/2010 08:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sooner or later, you'll need to have a difficult conversation. Whether it's "I turned my back for a minute and now we're in the emergency room" or "this relationship isn't working for me anymore" or even "I feel like I can't talk to you because all you do is shut me down," it's going to happen.

Here are some tips for making your next difficult conversation as smooth as possible.

1. Plan ahead: What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? What would be an ideal outcome? How can you word your opening sentences so that they are supportive, and not critical or condescending? Write out your goals on a piece of paper if you'll need a prompt.

2. Don't assume: What assumptions are you making about the other person's intentions? Although you may feel intimidated, ignored, disrespected, or worse, are you sure they meant it that way? It's easy to misinterpret what someone says, particularly when it's via e-mail or voicemail.

3. Watch for triggers: Is the situation pushing your buttons? If you step back for a moment, are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Are you having a reaction that has more to do with your personal history than with the actual situation? You may still need to have the conversation, but you'll go into it acknowledging that some of the heightened emotional state has to do with you.

4. Check your attitude: Your attitude influences the outcome. If you think the conversation will go poorly, it probably will. If you believe that the conversation, even though it's difficult, will result in some good, then it probably will. Adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.

5. Put yourself in their place: Think about the other person. What might they be thinking about this situation? Are they even aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What will be their main concerns? What solution do you think they would suggest? Use some empathy to see the topic from a different perspective.

6. Look for commonalities: Is the situation you're addressing something that may also be troubling the other person? Are there any common concerns? Could there be? Sometimes a difficult problem has a wider impact than just you, even though no one else may have brought it up yet because they dread having this difficult conversation.

7. Own your part: How have you contributed to the problem? It's easy to figure out how the other person contributed. But what was your role in what happened? Are you ready to take responsibility for your part, even if you feel the other person is mostly to blame?

Diana Mercer is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Perigee 2010).