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Three Things Not to Say in a Difficult Conversation

When having a difficult conversation, sometimes emotions run high and things can quickly go off the rails. Other times, we open our mouths and insert our foot. It happens to the best of us.

Over the years, I’ve talked a lot about word choice and how much it matters when it comes to difficult conversations. So while your toolkit is probably full of strategies on what you *should* say, sometimes we forget that there are words or phrases that should really be avoided when we’re in a challenging situation.

I’m sure we can all think of a time when we were having a less-than-ideal conversation with a friend, partner or colleague and at some point, words came tumbling out of their mouth and we’re left stunned.

Even if we know their intent wasn’t to be hurtful or unkind, our reaction can set things on a completely different path just from one phrase being hurled at us in the heat of the moment. Next thing you know we’ve decided that we’re going to nuke the bridge.

“You think I’m crazy? I’LL SHOW YOU CRAZY!”

But seriously. Words matter. And in a difficult conversation, there are just some things you should completely avoid saying. Ever.

Sure, it may be what’s swirling around in your head, or it may even be a true statement, but as usual, it’s all about picking your moment.

A difficult conversation isn’t the moment to let it rip. It just isn’t.

Check this out:

Here are three things NOT to say during a difficult conversation and some alternatives you can use instead:

#1. It’s Not Personal

Let’s be real here for a second. When someone is having a difficult conversation with you about your job or your family, it most certainly IS personal!

So why is this the “go-to” phrase people use in these situations?

The first reason is that it often makes the person saying it feel better. They may feel uncomfortable about having to have a difficult conversation so they’re trying to ease that awkwardness. They want to disconnect themselves from the conversation and by saying it isn’t personal they can feel like it’s not a big deal.

Saying it’s not personal is an attempt to take the emotion out of the situation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, in the context of a difficult conversation, you can’t really expect the person on the receiving end to not feel like it’s personal.

The best way to respond to someone who is upset or feeling stressed by the conversation isn’t to tell them it isn’t personal.

Instead, deliver the news, give them the courtesy to process what they’ve been told and just stop talking. No trying to smooth things over or making chitchat. Be respectful and let the other person feel their feelings.

#2. I Didn’t Say That

The funny thing about this one is that we *think* we’re clarifying but what we’re actually doing is inviting a back and forth. You say something, they twist your words, and the next thing you know you’re in an argument about your word choice, intent, or anything else they can think of to deflect.

By misrepresenting your words they’re trying to hook you.

Now I understand we’re human and our initial instinct is to defend ourselves, especially when we feel like someone isn’t hearing what we’re truly saying. That’s totally normal.

In a difficult conversation our goal is to keep things on track and guide things in the right direction, so engaging in a whole “you said this – no I didn’t- yes you did” type banter is getting you nowhere.

The best tactic to employ when someone is misquoting you is instead of saying “I never said that!” you want to stop and say:

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“What I meant by that statement was…”

From there, you can then restate your points. It may seem like it gets the same point across, but what you’re doing with these statements is clarifying, as opposed to arguing.

#3. I’m Sorry You Feel That Way

I’ve spoken before about this statement, which is considered to be the classic non-apology.

Telling someone you’re sorry “they feel that way” is dismissive of the emotions the other person is having. And if they have just heard something they feel is unfair or hurtful, you saying you’re sorry for their feelings does nothing other than reinforce negative emotions towards you.

Here’s what we know about this phrase: the person saying usually isn’t actually sorry. In some cases, they don’t have any reason to be! But using “I’m sorry” is a sort of catchall phrase that people default to when things get uncomfortable.

Saying you’re sorry someone feels a certain way can also imply that you have some ownership for their feelings. Everyone absolutely has the right to feel how they feel and while we should show empathy, it’s not our job to try and manage the emotions of someone else.

Instead of saying “I’m sorry you feel that way”, I encourage you to try to acknowledge their feeling in a more empathetic way, such as:

“It sounds like this is really upsetting you.”

You acknowledge the feelings without apologizing for the situation.

The key when it comes to what NOT to say is taking what you already know and applying it to the other person. All of that negative self-talk you’ve been working on to help you become better at having difficult conversations? It allllllll applies in reverse.

We’ve learned that the anticipation of an uncomfortable conversation is usually what does us in. So think about the person coming into the meeting or discussion. They probably know something is up already, but they may or may not even realize what the topic of discussion is going to be. Imagine how they’re feeling when they walk in that room.

Part of being great at handling difficult conversations is extending the grace you give yourself to the other person. If you wouldn’t be happy if someone said something like these examples to you, it’s best to think twice before blurting it out.



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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