12/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tear Down the Walls: How to Ease Into the Tough Topics

"People only see what they are prepared to see." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Find comfortable ways to raise challenging issues.

Once you decide to discuss a topic, then framing becomes important. This is especially true when the message will likely provoke a strong reaction. Foremost, reflect on the way the other person will hear it. They may not be in an emotional state to discuss the topic.

No matter how well you ease into a tough topic, the person may still react strongly. Avoid using that reaction to blame the other party or as an excuse to not raise the issue at all. You can likely remember a time where you avoided a conversation only for it to eventually rear its head at a most inopportune time. Easing into tough topics is about making progress rather than perfection.

I remember telling a business partner and a close friend how I had concerns about working with him. I led by asking permission -- "Can we talk about this now?" At first I shared as authentically as I could how much I valued the relationship. I also revealed my own challenges in working with friends and then directed the conversation to his actions and their impact on me. While certainly not easy, I look back now and recognize that the open discussion helped preserve our friendship.

No ideal time often exists for raising difficult topics, but some are better than others. Consider setting a time in advance to allow the other person to prepare for such a discussion. Send a signal through your body language and voice that the topic is manageable to reduce their anxiety. If you keep your voice down and convey a sense of calm, this will influence the conversation.

Initially, share your contribution to the present situation. Going into your own mistakes is rarely easy but uniquely powerful. In my example, I revealed that that I could have proposed earlier some constructive approaches for our work and our friendship. Share the deeper reasons for raising the topic to frame the conversation positively. I conveyed how important the friendship and business was for me and this created a safer zone for the difficult conversation.

In my next post, I will focus on how to separate the position from the person. Specifically, I will discuss preventing dislike for another person's view from seeping into dislike for the person.

To learn more about the importance of communication skills particularly in negotiation and conflict resolution, read about the solutions, results and publications Grande Lum has created at Accordence, Inc.
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