How to Move Forward from a Difficult Conversation

Photo of Raazi Imam

iStock 922758016Most everyone dreads having a difficult or crucial conversation – whether with a colleague, a business partner or client, or spouse.

I can think of plenty of examples earlier in my career where I said a few things I wish I had said differently, or not at all. I still make mistakes and while I try to be prepared for these types of conversations, sometimes I’m not. Regardless, it’s critical to know how to move forward.

Reflect

Take some time, free from distractions, to think about how the conversation went. What was the root of the conflict? It may have been as simple as a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, or perhaps it was a difference of opinion. Awareness of the root of the conflict will help you move forward. Also, think about what the message was that you had intended to convey in that conversation. If it got misconstrued or misinterpreted, how was it received by the other person? Ultimately, you’ll want to ask yourself what is more important to you – your ego, or the relationship with this other person?

Meet again and come prepared

Assuming the relationship is more important than your ego, set up some time to meet with this person, and come prepared. Remember if you felt hurt, angry, upset, and misunderstood, it’s likely that they did too. Don’t avoid the problem, let your emotions lead your conversation. If possible, agree to actionable next steps you can take to move past the issue.

Listen

Seems simple but we spend so much time formulating a response in our head while the other person is speaking that sometimes that we forget to listen. Be willing to listen to the other person and focus on accepting their feedback and thoughts. Psychologist Harriet Lerner writes, “Nondefensive listening [to the hurt party] is at the heart of offering a sincere apology” and urges the listener not to “interrupt, argue, refute, or correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms and complaints.” After the person has spoken, affirm and reiterate or repeat what they’ve said out loud. This will help them feel heard and validated.

Apologize

Accept responsibility for your prior statements – especially if you regret some. We have all said things out of anger, fear and frustration that we don’t mean, or that were purposefully hurtful but it’s important for the future of the relationship that you own your words and their impact.

Express intention

You’ve heard them out. You may not agree with everything they said, but continuing the conversation by sharing a committed, disciplined approach you’ll use to improve or change certain things based on the person’s feedback will be hugely helpful for the relationship. If you want to retain the relationship, let them know it’s important to you. They may be on the same page, or they may need more time to process. Don’t expect that the other person will be on your same timeframe and remember to give them the time they need and space they may need. Be patient if you value the relationship.

Move forward

After a follow-up conversation, I typically send the person a short note via text or email, thanking them for the feedback, their openness to moving forward, and even expressing again how much I value the relationship. Having something in writing validates the discussion, builds rapport, and breaks the ice for future conversations, meetings, and interactions.

Most importantly, follow through on your commitment and the things you set out to change. Nothing builds trust more than follow-through and accountability. Actions really speak louder than words alone.

Next time you have a difficult conversation, spend your energy looking at it as an opportunity to get clarity on your relationship. Adversity can lead to connectedness. It’s also important to not dwell on negativity – negativity hurts the individual far more than the person that caused the pain. Relationships are constantly evolving and learning how to move forward from difficult conversations is a part of you growing as a person as well.