Elephant Conversations Communication Breakdown: How To Stop a Difficult Conversation Before it Even Starts - Elephant Conversations

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Communication Breakdown: How To Stop a Difficult Conversation Before it Even Starts

We talk a lot about different tactics for handling a different conversation in the moment, but what if we had the tools to actually stop the “difficult” part before it even starts?

Wouldn’t that be amazing?

When it comes to difficult conversations, no one is immune. At work, at home, out in public…it can happen anywhere, at any time. And once a difficult conversation starts, it can spiral out of control quickly. Even if you start out confident, the next thing you know things have gone sideways and the other person is upset.

When this happens your message gets totally lost and you’re left shaking your head, wondering what happened.

One thing I’ve found that helps keep things from becoming difficult is the first place is this:

You need to have really clear boundaries.

Check this out:

You know that old expression about good fences making for good neighbours? Boundaries are your fence.

Maybe you built a fence to keep the neighbour’s patio furniture off your property, or to keep their dog off your lawn. Or maybe you just want a bit of privacy. Regardless of the reason for the fence, it serves a purpose.

The fence protects you. That’s  exactly what boundaries do.

Boundaries are a Good Thing

Before we dive into this a bit further, I want to address the often negative connotation of the word “boundaries”.  

Boundaries are one of those things that can start out one way, and end of up another. A good example is that as a parent, we all start out with some boundaries. But then we start hearing “parents should do X” or “parents shouldn’t do Y” and the next thing we know we’ve got ourselves all tied in knots over the things we *think* we’re supposed to do or want.

Now, that example is one of negative boundaries. Boundaries aren’t something we should be putting in place to ensure we have total control over everything.  If you’re constantly finding yourself “shoulding” over things, it’s probably time to step back and hit the reset button.

When I think about the types of boundaries that are needed when it comes to preventing difficult conversations, it’s not about “shoulding”.

It starts with reflecting. Before there’s any conflict and things are getting heated, it’s a conversation with ourselves to ask these hard questions:

  • What’s important to me here?
  • Where do I want to draw my line in the sand?
  • What am I willing (or not willing) to do to resolve this?

The idea is that by having this inner dialogue and reflecting, we can be calm and clear-headed because we’ve already decided what will work for us and there’s no immediate situation in progress to deal with.

Establishing Boundaries Before the Conflict

To take that a step further….what if we were to communicate these boundaries BEFORE we have conflict?

When my kids were younger, I had a hard and fast rule: no riding in cars without seatbelts. It was (and is) a basic and simple rule, so I found communicating that to my childcare or anyone else who would be with the kids to be pretty easy.  It was non-negotiable, and people understood that because I communicated it upfront.

Boundaries are our non-negotiables. So if someone wants to try and get around what we’ve already communicated to them, it’s as simple as reiterating the boundary and standing our ground.

By communicating your boundaries ahead of time, it prevents things from escalating, because you’ve already made your stance clear.

The trick with boundaries is that they can’t be overly complicated. So let’s say someone at work is being really disrespectful in the way they speak to you, or maybe you have a colleague who yells when they get frustrated. Your boundary would be letting that person know that if they continue to be rude, or yell, you won’t continue the conversation.

The heat of the moment is NOT the best time to communicate your boundary. It may be necessary for a certain situation, but let’s face it. You know your colleagues or your family. You know the guy two cubes over freaks out when things don’t go his way. You know your Aunt Enid screams when she doesn’t get her favourite chair at the table.

So why not do yourself a favour and let them know what you will and will not tolerate before it even happens? Then it’s on them to decide how to behave once they know your boundaries. An important thing to keep in mind when you do this though…tone matters. Your approach should be factual and kind. Your tone can have an impact on how the message is received, so always best to avoid even a hint of hostility.

If you’re anything like me, you probably have a tendency to be a fixer. You want to be helpful, or make things easier for other people. The problem this can create is that we sometimes feel kind of bad when we set reasonable boundaries. This is why practice is key.

Look for little areas in your life where you can set simple boundaries. Boundaries that feel good and comfortable.

One thing I like to remind myself of is that we need to recognize that our desire to “rescue” people (when they are perfectly capable of doing something themselves) isn’t always helpful, and can be a hindrance to their own growth and development. Sometimes boundaries are just as much about helping them as they’re about protecting ourselves.

Now, I want to keep things real here, so I’ll say this: that initial boundary conversations may be a bit awkward. The person you’re communicating them to might not love what you’re telling them. That’s okay because not everyone has to like our personal boundaries.

The goal with this conversation is to say your piece, set the boundary and just let it be. Don’t justify or defend your reasons. Set the boundary and hold the space.

Remember, you have way more influence than you think you have. Your ability to prevent conversations from spinning out of control is there, you just need to focus and do it!



See Diane's Fearless Conversations Blog for more tips, tools, and strategies for succeeding in difficult conversations and getting what you want need and deserve out of work and out of life.


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If your are tired of feeling overwhelmed by difficult conversations or you wish you had the courage and skill to tackle tough conversations successfully, Diane A. Ross will show you quick and easy ways to rock your difficult conversations without compromise and WITHOUT needing to become a super-confident, master wordsmith. Get this free training and ongoing tips & tricks now at www.ElephantConversations.com

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Hi, I'm Diane, reformed courtroom lawyer, mediator and difficult conversations expert and I am here to guide you as you tap into your communication brilliance!

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