11 Ways to Have a Difficult Conversation, Even When You Reeeaaally Don't Want To

We’ve all been there. You need to have that talk. It could be the break-up talk, or the talk with your coworker who keeps undermining you, or even that conversation with your mom where you need to ask that she not call you 32,942,359 times a day. It's going to be difficult, and feelings may get hurt, but you've put off having a difficult conversation long enough.

More often than not, when we have to have a difficult conversation, we want to get it over with as quickly as possible. We don't think through exactly how best to approach a person or, alternatively, we over-think it and develop a bullet point list of what we need to communicate, spending a lot of mental energy trying to anticipate exactly how that conversation will go. Rarely do we slow down enough to see what the situation calls for and inject mindfulness into the conversation.

Knowing just how hard those talks can be, I recommend following the Buddha’s teachings on what are known as the Four Gates of Speech, a topic I discuss at length in my book The Buddha Walks into the Office . It sounds complicated, but really, it's quite intuitive.

Let's start with describing the Four Gates of Speech, which you can think of as four questions to ask yourself before you begin speaking.

Is what i'm saying true?

If you're about to say something (positive or negative) that you are not one hundred percent is true, don’t say it. For example, you might be making assumptions about why your coworker is acting like a jerk, without actually exploring what’s going on with them. As one colleague of mine once advised — when in doubt, only ask questions. The more questions we ask, the more we see our way through to what’s actually going on, as opposed to what we may think is going on.

Is what I'm saying necessary?

It's common to want to bullshit a little bit when you're at work. You might want to boast about how well things are going, or let slip that two people you work with are sleeping together, or just ask a lot of inane questions. But if you constantly come back to the idea that you are trying to only say what is necessary, you will come off as truly genuine.

And you know what? People respect genuine. They are energized by that genuine presence and are more likely to respond in turn. If you can only say what you decide is necessary on a regular basis, you will begin changing your office environment, your family relationships, your romantic status, and whatever else you need to address. Even if what you are saying isn’t the easiest thing for the other person to hear, people will respect and admire that you won’t bullshit them.

Is what I'm saying kind?

Even if something is true and necessary to talk about, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be kind. Before you launch into a conversation you can ask yourself, “Will saying this create hurt or harm?” If you believe it will be helpful to the other person, say what you came to say. If it will only create destruction, without any positive outcome, I advise you consider holding your tongue. This may look like avoiding topics you know to be painful, or respecting someone’s privacy in terms of which questions you ask them.

I do want to clarify one thing: there is a distinction to be made between being nice and being kind. Someone can be nice all the time, but not necessarily helpful to a situation. They may just be inflating someone’s ego or pandering to them. Kind can sometimes look tough. Kind can be cutting.

The reason we ask whether what we want to say will help or harm the situation is to see if our intention is good. Sometimes, something that may not be nice to hear (like why you need to break-up) may ultimately be the kindest thing for that person. In all things, we should strive to be kind, but particularly in our speech.

Is it the right time?

When you sit down with that soon-to-be ex and decide that the kindest thing would be to cut them free, you need to consider whether they are at a point where they can hear that. Just because you're excited to get the conversation over with doesn't mean that it's the time to dive into murky waters. Finding the right space and time to have a difficult conversation is important if you want to feel heard.

the six points of mindful speech

There are a few other communication pointers I’d like to recommend, assuming you have made it through the Four Gates of Speech and are ready to have that conversation. These are the Six Points of Mindful Speech, as articulated by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

1. Speak Slowly

2. Enunciate Clearly

3. Listen to Yourself

4. Listen to Others

5. Regard Silence as a Part of Speech

6. Speak Concisely

In other words, when you are ready to communicate something, try to speak in a way that will allow the other person to hear you. That means speaking slowly and enunciating well. You should pay attention to sharing from your own experience and listen deeply to what the other person is saying. That means you don’t just sit and wait until it’s your turn to talk, or think through what you’re going to say as soon as they shut their mouth. You really remain present and listen. Do not be afraid to give a lot of space to your conversations.

Silence can speak volumes, particularly when someone is trying to maneuver out of a difficult topic. Whether you are having a positive or negative conversation, be concise. Employing these Six Points of Mindful Speech ensures good communication and that you are not causing harm in your speech, in any context. When you engage these simple guidelines you shift your own speech and allow others the opportunity to meet you in that new form of communication.

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Images: Sergio Vassio Photography/Flickr, Giphy