How to have a Difficult Adult Conversation

The best time to have a conversation is right now. Setting an expectation, listening, reflecting, and observing are fundamental.

A whole category of adult-to-adult conversations is hard — you focus on getting a viewpoint across to your partner, parent, or colleague but it is counter to what they want to hear. This includes giving and getting professional and personal feedback or speaking up in meetings to bring an important perspective or information. These are difficult conversations because they have a direct connection with our mental and emotional health and our view of ourselves.

We learn most of this conflict communication through early life interactions with our playmates, teachers, parents, and siblings. These interactions teach us (or maybe not) how to manage difficult emotions and have a reasonable conversation around them. Even if we don’t acquire these skills, the same people are also our support system in conflict situations, so it kind of masks the shortcoming. However, when you become an adult your support system that managed a lot of the conflict is gone. With no uniform experience or teaching in school, the greatest gap opens up when we have not learnt to recognise our individual emotions, manage them and recognise them in others. 

The company I founded and run, TWB_, is a communications company. We partner with the world’s largest Fortune 500 tech leaders for their technical, marketing, and internal communications needs. What we do spans technical and language difficulty but the conversations that happen within those companies, with their customers and within their homes — they are the ones that are really difficult because they are messy. 

I developed a view on how to manage difficult conversations while growing up, going through education, building an MNC career, and building a multi-million dollar technology business. But my greatest learning came over the last six years in the pressure cooker of dealing with the legal system, creditors, employees, and customers on the one hand, and to have the same conversations with the people in my personal life on the other. Great pressure is also a great teacher. I relate to three types of difficult adult conversations in this piece and how you could do it better. 

Talking to Strangers

Most people find approaching and talking to a stranger very intimidating. Yet it is an essential life skill across many kinds of life roles. Being a leader is about selling ideas to others; ideas they are likely to resist because it is not intrinsic to them. 

I was a very shy boy growing up — till I realised I have to learn some things if I must get ahead in life. Public speaking and opening conversations with strangers were the top two on that list. Both centered around this one theme of approaching and talking to strangers. 

My first realization was that fear of rejection kept me from approaching and talking to people. What if I approached them and they did not reciprocate? My fear of talking to women was legendary but one of my friends Jairaj Bhatia was the opposite. I asked him how he managed not to make a fool of himself and his response became the bedrock of my approach to personal and professional conversation with strangers.

He said, “If you don’t ask them due to the fear that the answer is no, the answer is no anyway.” I found that if I could be polite and direct and could handle rejection, I could approach any person or situation. To my great surprise, I realised that people hardly ever turn you down. Because balancing my fear of rejection is their need to be liked. People love to have a conversation about things they value in themselves, they just don’t want to be the one to make the first move. 

Speaking up in a Group

Getting our point across in a charged highly competitive environment with multiple people and stakeholders has a different set of challenges — but it is something we must do in business meetings and conference calls every day. Allow me to step back and relate it to a personal experience which is an amplified high-pressure version of the fear of speaking up and being heard in a group. 

For the placements in my MBA days the first step was the dreaded first round of the selection process — the Group Discussion. If you take a dozen or more highly motivated, very vocal folks literally fighting for a job, they are at their screaming best. I went for a few ‘mock group discussion’ sessions where I watched my classmates slug it out. I just watched and did not participate. I realised a few things while watching these group conversations:

  • Typically the group has maybe 25% highly vocal folks, 50% who are chasing the agenda set by the first set of loud guys but who don’t get a word in sideways, and the other 25% who have precious little to say. I see it in meetings and on TV debates day in day out. So how could I get in?
  • When the loudest guys are busy drowning out the others they have maybe one thing to say and everyone quickly takes positions around it. Essentially after a few seconds of saying something most people run out ideas and start flagging off, till someone takes over
  • When people are highly anxious their voice and pitch both are very high.

So I developed a three-step process for myself to ace a Group Discussion:

  1. There is no substitute for reading a lot about most things from all angles. Being well-read allowed me to have an insight and a real contribution to what was being said on the table. For whatever role I choose thereafter I have always decided to be the best-read person in the room. A habit I carry to this day. I read an average of 100-150 pages every day on my areas of interest 
  2. No matter how energetic a group there are is a gap when a speaker started waning off because they have run out of things to say or because they are figuring out what to say as they go along. But to find the gap you have to be a very good listener. Generally, people are so full in the head of what they want to say that they don’t pay attention to what is being said
  3. If I modulated my voice to be deeper than it is and spoke slowly it stood out and showed control. So I did not participate from the get-go at each point on the table but I followed the conversation keenly listening for the gap. When I found it, and if I had a brand new perspective, I spoke in a deliberate manner — with control. Before I ended I always turned to someone who had been quiet and asked them what they thought and brought them in. This showed even more control and authority. 

On the first day of placement season, I cleared every Group Discussion. The first job on the first day was mine. The exact same learning has helped in thousands of difficult meetings I’ve had over the last 30 years. 

Personal Confrontation

When there is a gap in expectation and reality in a professional or personal relationship we are forced to ‘confront’ it. I use the word confrontation to mean giving severe feedback that you know the recipient is resistant to. Confrontation is stressful for both parties. Knowing what is causing this stress buildup is a good way to make it a meaningful communication. 

  1. Why do we set up a ‘confrontation’? When we go into a conversation expecting a ‘confrontation’ for instance: ‘(S)he will refuse to see the point I am trying to make’, we already set the tone for stress to build before and during the conversation. Similarly, sometimes we go into it expecting a ‘negative’ outcome for instance: ‘It is useless anyway but I need to say it’. When you already expect that there is not going to be any agreed plan to move forward and both will stick to their positions, it is a classic ‘lose-lose’ situation 
  2. Why do you avoid confrontation? It is easy to think that we avoid confrontations because we feel we will hurt the other person. In reality the opposite is true. We do not confront because of our need to be liked. We fear that when we confront each other we will lose their love or their respect (or both) and they will stop liking us. The greater this need the more we delay the confrontation. But delaying has the opposite effect. The more we delay, the more we start feeling frustrated about not being able to make the change in the situation. As stress builds you feel even more frustrated because you feel worse about yourself not being able to have control 
  3. Why do we lose the drift in the confrontation? When we avoid confrontation it reaches a point the confrontation starts on an external trigger. It could be a delayed task at work or a wrongly worded email or because you forgot a birthday.  This trigger makes it almost impossible to keep it within ourselves either because it is killing us or something bad will happen if we do not get the other person to see the reality. When this trigger presents itself we confront someone with all our pent up emotion. And soon the situation snowballs. 

What can you do to Handle Confrontation?

  1. Be aware of your emotions: Your need to be liked. Your fears. Why is it that you want a confrontation because someone forgot a birthday — does it really show they don’t care? If you want to see if they care a better marker is whether they were emotionally unavailable when you had a personal setback or tragedy.
  2. What do you want to achieve: Do you have a plan for where you want this to end or it is just to vent and blame? If you have an end in mind, start with an open attitude and a genuine desire to learn why this behavior is so persistent that you want this confrontation. If you do not have a genuine curiosity and respect for both parties there is nothing to achieve. 
  3. Don’t try to play a script: Save yourself from developing and perfecting a script and endlessly practicing conversations in your head. Instead do not let it simmer, be direct with what you must say, and accept the response similarly. Having an open respectful discussion where both parties speak frankly about the details of an issue can help resolve it.

Giving feedback or thrashing out a solution from conflicting viewpoints is an essential life skill. Avoiding difficult conversations hurts relationships and creates poor outcomes. When you shy away from conflict you often prepare multiple scenarios in your head and spend a huge amount of time rewording your thoughts, but conflict conversations rarely follow the script.

The best time to have a difficult adult conversation at work or at home is right now. Remember, you don’t actually need to talk that much during a difficult conversation. You need to focus on laying out the expectation, listening, reflecting, and observing so (together) you can find a solution. 

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.

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