09/30/2010 12:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Difficult Conversations Don't Have to Be So Difficult

I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of the launch of my book, "Surviving Dreaded Conversations: How To Talk Through Any Difficult Conversation at Work," but it feels like only yesterday that I was holed up in my apartment for days on end, tapping away at my computer keyboard contemplating, analyzing and debating why certain conversations are so riddled with fear. Even after completing the book and spending the past year talking about it, what continues to perplex me is the way so many people tend to be paralyzed by the need to say what needs to be said. I don't get it.

My book focused on work life, but it's true in personal relationships too. These conversations have the power to tie people into knots. The funny thing is, for the most part, they know why. People can articulate exactly why they dread having a particular conversation. They even know what they should say, which is evidenced in the fact that they ask me, "Donna, how should I tell my coworker that her blouse reeks of sour baby milk?" Or, "Donna how do I tell my employee that his performance is not up to par?" My response 99.9 percent of the time is, "Why can't you say to the person exactly what you just said to me?" Usually, it's perfect. Why? Because it's what they want/need to say. So, if we're not trying to figure out why we dread these situations and it's not that we don't know what to say, then what is it? Why do people think they don't know what to say when they actually do?


Well, first it's because they get stuck on the "how." We don't learn in this society how to speak up and speak truthfully and as a result, we never acquire the skills. Therefore, we're not given a chance to practice, which in turn deprives us of the opportunity to build confidence. Hence, when the situation arises, fear sets in. But it's based on a phantom of what might happen, rather than on the likelihood of what will actually happen. One of the most common things I hear about difficult conversations is that they never turn out to be as bad as the people dreading them expected.

Then, if we consider the myriad of books and articles out there that shape the topic, we need to start asking ourselves why we accept that so much negativity and fear surround basic, and what should be, benign communications. The problem is that there is a universally shared core assumption that inextricably links the act of speaking up or expressing oneself to some sort of inevitable and horrible conflict and confrontation. It's just not so. Worse, every time we buy into this notion that "saying it like it is," is cause for combat and dread, we not only feed the bogeyman but we create verbal constipation for ourselves. As a result, needless barriers and obstacles are thrown up which serve only to hold companies relationships back by preventing both individual and collective goals from being met.

So a simple request for example, that asks a coworker to talk less about his or her personal life audibly and in the company of others, is just that ... a simple request. One question. One answer. More than that, it is being overly complicated. Meanwhile, where and why these types of conversations have been fueled with fear and been turned into something so bad I'll never know. However, I do know that for as long as we continue to expect them to be bad, then bad is what we will get. So instead of starting with a plethora of tactics to help us get through difficult conversations that may or may not in fact be difficult, let's first start by removing them from a category that warrants automatic anxiety and dread.

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