8 strategies for having difficult conversations


Hey there. I’m hearing from many of you expressing the desire to start conversations with people about everything that’s going on. Yet, there’s a lot of anxiety over wanting to broach hard topics but not knowing how or being afraid of getting it wrong. Race relations, COVID protocols—to wear a mask or not to wear a mask, politics. Serious stuff. Stressful stuff.  


“When people are willing to communicate with honesty and candor, and at the same time with mutual respect, an exchange of perspectives can take place that may lead to a new way of seeing and being together.” 
Jon Kabat-Zinn, author, Full Catastrophe Living 



Here’s how to start: 

The root word of communication is communion which means to unite, to come together. It doesn’t always mean coming to agreement. It means there’s a flow, a willingness to open up, to listen and be heard, to understand and be understood. Here are some ground rules, or better yet, mindful ways to tackle those tough talks, with the hope that maybe, just maybe we can still find harmony, even if we disagree. 

1. Keep the gloves onMutual respect is ground rule number one. If you don’t respect the person you’re communicating with then maybe this isn’t a conversation you should be having. Enter conversations with positive intent—to understand and be understood. 

2. Think it throughThe most important conversation is the one you have with yourself. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and the points you want to make. Then stay on point and in the present moment. Avoid bringing up unrelated topics. Know what your anchor is and refer back to it regularly.  

3. Stick to the factsState what you know to be true. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert, a historian, or political savant. Your own lived experiences qualify as facts. The same holds true for the other person.  

4. Dialoguenot monologueTry not to dominate the conversation. Make sure people have a fair opportunity to be heard. Avoid raising your voice, interrupting or talking over people… even if they use these tactics. 

5. Listen, listenlistenInstead of entering a conversation for the sole purpose proving your point, listen with the intent of really trying to understand what the other person is trying to convey. What can you learn from this conversation? What light can they shed? Is there something you hadn’t previously thought of or considered? Listening makes people feel seen, heard and valued, which greatly increases the likelihood they will in turn do the same for you. 

6. Stay calmEmotionally charged communication tends to be extremely stressful, making us prone to only want to engage with people who already agree with us. When we keep our emotions in check, we open up consideration for other points of view, and expanded thinking. If you need to step away from the conversation for a bit to collect yourself that’s okay too. Remember the loudest voices aren’t necessarily right.  

7. Use appropriate languageTuck away the insults, stereotypes, and triggering comments. (And review the previous step if necessary. 

8. Show genuine interestBe intentional about focusing on the conversation. Again, listen. 

Put away distractionsTurn off the phone. Pull out youearbuds. Make eye contact. 
Repeat words or short phrases backLet them know you heard what they said by repeating it back in a non-judgmental way. For example, You said you think what happened is unfair, ok, can you help me understand why?” 
Respect personal experiences and emotionsRefrain from making dismissive comments like, it’s not a big deal, or “you’re overreacting.” Instead try responding like this: I hadn’t thought of it like that, I understand now,” I was wrong, thank you for correcting me.”  
Ask questionsGo beyond the obvious and dig a little deeper. Ask questions like: “why do you feel this is the best option?, “what was considered when making this decision?”, can you tell me more about how you feel?”, or “can you explain why you think that? In response, try saying things like “I feel___ because of ___.

Beyond the talk 

After a hard convo (and kudos for you for mustering up the courage in tackling the tough stuff!) take time to think about the conversation and process what you heard. Journal your thoughts. Write down what you learned, what you wished you had said, or what you could have said differently. What did you learn about yourself and others? This kind of mindful self-introspection helps you recognize your trigger points and blind spots and over time, you’ll become more comfortable approaching challenging conversations. None of us is perfect and we may flub sometimes in our attempt to gain understanding or forget to mention something, or upon later reflectionhave a change of heartIt‘s okay to revisit conversations and even concede ground if need be. In the end, we may have to agree to disagree, but without jeopardizing relationships with the people in our lives. 

It also helps to stay up to date on current events. Studies show learning new information causes the connections in our brains to fire off little electrical signals that boost our mood. Which may explain in part why we feel giddy after listening to a particularly thought-provoking podcast or talk. Learning new things can be a de-stressor, if we strike the balance between consuming media and information overload. So read interesting books. Get involved in your local political process. Look for opportunities to embrace different cultures through food, art, and community. Develop an interest or hobby outside of your immediate sphere. There are times when what we perceive as differences may actually be strengths. 


Bottom line 

In his widely read book “The Art of Communication”, author Thich Nhat Hanh, advises that we listen and speak from place of compassion. He boils down effective communication to four key elements:  

1. Tell the TruthNo fibbing or turning the truth upside down. 

2. Don’t exaggerate. Just the facts, please. 

3. Be consistent. No double talk; saying something one way to one person and the opposite way to another. 

4. Use peaceful language. No insults or condemnation.

Approaching difficult conversations from a mindful, respectful point of view, maintaining openness, and seeking the greater good, lays the groundwork for less stressful communication, greater understanding and common ground.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. 


By Roxane Battle
Vice President Advocacy and Community at Sanvello

Roxane Battle works to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health issues. Prior to coming to Sanvello, Roxane spent 20+ years as a television journalist, including work as an award-winning news anchor and reporter at NBC Minneapolis, CBS, and FOX.

As a sought-after speaker Roxane presents on change, resiliency, and finding joy during times of transition. Roxane was named an Architect of Change on mariashriver.com and has been featured in Working Mother and Ebony national magazines, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and St. Paul Pioneer Press.

A Minnesota native, Roxane earned her undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She completed her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia

Her self-help memoir, “Pockets of Joy: Deciding to Be Happy, Choosing to Be Free” (Whitaker House 2017), became an Amazon best seller in multiple categories.

Roxane lives near the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and has an adult son.

Follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @roxanebattle