The 10 Steps to Successful Sensitive Conversations

There are Ten Steps to follow to have a successful outcome in a sensitive or critical conversation, where tension or disrespect could emerge.

These ten steps are laid sequentially so you can follow them when you have a sensitive conversation you want to have.

Before these ten steps are described, it is important to keep the following key points in mind anytime you want a successful outcome to an important conversation.

  • State what is important about having this conversation to you and how you want to be heard
  • Your partner state what is important to them about this topic and how they want to be heard.  
  • Listen to the other’s point of view for the purpose of understanding what their true intention is for effective resolution to the topic being broached.
  • Conversations wanting clarification and resolve which involve two people have three points of view: the view of each individual and the combined view that will lead to successful resolution.

Here are the ten steps using the topic of money saving as the example.

In this example you will be the one who wants to save more but feel you can’t because your partner seems to be spending more than you think it is necessary.

Steps 1-3: Preparing for the actual conversation:

1. Determine as clearly as you can, what the subject is that you want to delve into and come to mutually agreeable resolution. Because this topic may have been festering in your mind and emotions for quite some time, it is critical that you separate your emotions about it from the topic itself. As you determine the subject, it is imperative that you not place any blame or shame about the other person in the subject.  If, for example you want to save more and you think the other person is a compulsive shopper and inconsiderate of your feelings about spending and saving, you cannot point the finger at them with blame or shame. Instead, you must frame the subject to address what you want only: save more money and then to include the other person in the topic by adding to the topic and how the two of you can make that happen in a way that works for both of you.  There is no blame or shame here. Instead you are inviting the other person to determine how to make this happen with you.

For instance don’t say: “I want to talk about how we use money.” It is too broad and can give room for misinterpretation. “Uh oh!” the other person might think. “They want to lecture me about __________”(fill in the blank.) Then they might continue thinking: “Yeah, but what about their ________________” (fill in the blank.)This conversation is bound to derail before the subject has even been reintroduced.

So, instead, if your money conversation is about the different styles of spending and saving, you might want to frame your topic as: “I would like us to have a conversation about how we can integrate our different money styles so that we make spending and saving powerful models in our money life together. This way of framing also can serve the purpose of disarming the other partner as they see it is not necessarily going to be an attack or point the finger session. Instead it might actually involve listening, understanding, respecting and negotiating.

2. Define your own intention for the meeting and explain it to the person with whom you will be having the conversation. It might look like this:

  • I want to determine how we can add a savings component to our life with money
  • I want to share with you what is important  to me about saving money
  • I want to hear from you what is important about saving money
  • I want us to consider what a program of saving money could look like for us so that it works for both of us. 

Let your partner know what is important about the topic to you. DO NOT mention them in the topic.

Returning to our example:

Don’t say something like “I want to talk about our saving and spending because I can’t stand how easy it is for you to spend money and I can’t save for our future.” Take the heat out of your statement and feelings and say something like: "I want to talk about our savings and spending for two reasons: so I can share with you why saving is so important to me, and so you can help me find a way to save for things we know are important together.”   

3. Schedule the meeting for the conversation - find a mutually convenient date and time. Limit the meeting to no more than 45 minutes. It is merely an introductory conversation. You don’t have to get to your intended outcome. This is not a race it is a bridge to understanding and harmonious resolution. By its very nature, harmony and trust, until they are freely given, take time to build and to believe. 

Steps 4-10: Having the Conversation:

State the topic and the outcome you want from this subject. Let the other person know that you might not reach the outcome today.

4. Have the other person ask you this question: “What is important to you about this conversation?

Why is it important to ask this question? For two reasons. The first is it allows the other person to listen to you and not feel that they are on the spot. Second, it allows you to speak about your thoughts on the subject without attacking them. They may wonder at your true motives and be expecting to be attacked. But when you speak to what you want without bringing your feelings or thoughts about how they are with money, some of the tension will melt away. Trust may not yet be built, but some tension will disappear when they don’t feel they are on trial.

As you respond to this question talk ONLY about your own feelings and thoughts regarding this subject. Do NOT mention the other person in any way as the question is about the topic itself not about your thoughts or feelings about how you perceive the other person’s actions in this topic.

Example: Sam, thank you for asking that question. I am really uncomfortable with the amount of spending we do. I think it impacts the house maintenance budget and that bothers me. There are things I think need fixing up around here and I don’t see the money to take care of those things. I think the roof needs to be looked at before winter starts and the dishwasher doesn’t seem to be getting the glasses as clean as it used to.  I would really like to bolster our savings account.

Notice that you didn’t assign any blame or shame to your partner or yourself. You merely spoke about your thoughts and feelings about the topic. You did mention the two of you because this topic relates to both of you but you didn’t marginalize the two of you by saying how it was going to affect your relationship together. 

Having an inclusive conversation, one that includes rather than marginalizes each of you reduces emotional tension that can escalate to withdrawal, retreat, blame, control or bullying.

Have your partner continue to ask you the following question:  What else about this topic/conversation is important to you?”

Continue with anything else on your mind that is important to you about this topic. Never bring in criticisms or points of view about the other person. Just talk about how the topic relates to you. The temptation may be to start getting negative toward your partner and bringing in your perception of how they conduct themselves in this topic. Do NOT go there. It is important in order to foster the respect you have for yourselves and each other as well as keeping the integrity of the conversation clear, that you only talk about your thoughts and emotions as they apply to your actions and feelings.  If you bring in your negative feelings about the other person they could rightfully feel threatened rather than supportive.  Think about if the roles were reversed how you would feel if someone were to talk about how you are not performing to their standards/expectations. When you are done with what is on your mind, let the other person know: “That’s it. There is nothing else on my mind. Thank you for asking.” It is critical to add this last sentence because if you are still feeling agitated or feel blame towards the other person, thanking them actually diffuses some of that negativity you might harbor.

5. Now, thank the other person for listening to you and ask them: “So I can feel secure in knowing you understood what I said, please without giving your opinions or feelings about what I said, what did you hear me say is important to me about this conversation/topic?”

This allows you to hear what your partner heard you say. Their filters may pick up certain points and not others. Do NOT interrupt the other person as they tell you what they heard you say. When they are done, thank them for listening to you. If elements were missing from their response to you, let them know you would like to add elements that need to be included.

Here are scenarios that could occur:

  • The other person could say exactly what you said in which case they heard you.
  • The other person could mention only one or two elements that you said. In this case thank them for mentioning those elements and let them know that there are a few points that you would like to repeat because they are important as well
  • The other person may react to your thoughts and feelings with their own reactions and interpretations of what you said with added emotional heat.  If this happens it is very important for you to stay calm. When they are done, thank them for expressing their feelings about how they feel. Let them know there will be an opportunity to get to their feelings, but right now the two of you are focused on what is important about this particular subject to each of you. Ask them to state what they heard was important to you about the topic and bring them back to the topic rather than the emotions around the topic.    

6. Now, it is time for your partner to be heard so you will ask your partner: “What is important to you about this conversation?”  And just listen as the other person expresses their thoughts to you. If their response becomes personal and offensive, remind them that they are to speak only about themselves and what is important about the subject to them without bringing in their opinions about you into their response. As they did with you, keep following up with:  until they have completed their thoughts and they have nothing else to add.

7. Then remember to have them ask you: “So I can feel secure in knowing you understood what I said, please without giving your opinions or feelings about what I said, what did you hear me say is important to me about this conversation/topic?”  Now it is your turn to say what you heard so the other person can feel completely heard as you felt by them.

8. You are now ready to talk about the outcome you intend for this meeting. This next part addresses the emotional satisfaction you want from this conversation and topic. Have your partner ask you: "What is important about finding a satisfying resolution to this topic for you and what would that satisfying resolution look like for you?”  

This question gives you an opportunity to talk about the underlying reason this topic is so important to you.

Be sure your partner will follow up with “What else is import to you to attain _____________?" until you are done. Also, again, don’t forget to ask you partner “What did you hear me say is important to me about “the objective?”

9. Now it’s time for your partner to talk about the satisfaction that they seek from finding a solution to this topic. As usual, keep asking “what else..” until your partner signals they are done talking. Also have them ask you “What have you heard me say …” so that they can make sure as well they were heard and understood.

Once you have heard and understood your partner’s thoughts and feelings you have a better understanding of what each of you want to achieve. You may find:

  • You are both on the same page and just never talked about it fearing the other one might feel hurt. You can now find your resolution rather easily.
  • You see the topic differently and need to determine how to respectfully proceed. You will now ask to schedule another time, in the near future, to figure that out.
  • You may see things very differently. You may be willing to give up eating out entirely for the home maintenance projects while it is important for your partner to eat out because eating out represents something very important to them. In this case schedule a time where you can come to a solution that works for both of you in order to satisfy both of your needs. Each of you will come to the next meeting prepared with ideas to share on the options you see as feasible solutions to get to the ultimate resolution you each want for both of you.

10. Now you are ready to begin to talk about the common solution to the topic keeping top of mind what you both have expressed from the prior questions.

Each of you will have intentions you want achieved, one or both of you may feel guarded about your feelings, one or both of you may wonder when the attack will come. You need to be aware of the tensions you have that could derail the conversation and above all, DON’T GO THERE. It is imperative that your communication be about the subject not about your interpretation of the other person’s way of dealing with the subject. In fact, when you find that the topic is veering off track and diving into personal attacks, note what is happening and either return to the topic itself or end the conversation and reschedule the meeting for another time. If still you cannot make this conversation work for the two of you, then bring in an outside facilitator to help get you on neutral ground where you can feel like the conversation will stay on respectful and agreed to terms.

Lastly, do not forget to schedule any follow up meetings or commitment and then make sure you do follow up.