What do you do if you want to have a difficult conversation about a matter that’s important to you but the other person doesn’t? I recently conducted a workshop for women business owners and this question came up for a number of the participants.
When you want to talk and the other person doesn’t, it may be tempting to cajole them into talking. Too often, this approach has mixed success because you may be missing important subtext in the other person’s “I don’t want to talk about it” response. So, let go of convincing, begging, whining, arm-twisting and other assorted techniques designed to essentially wear the other person into talking about the problem with you. When you use these tactics, you add a layer of difficulty to whatever difficult situation you already face together.
Instead, get more information about why she or he doesn’t want to have the conversation with you. Here are several common reasons and ways to address them:
I’m not ready.
- The message: I need more time to digest the situation and get ready to talk about it.
- Comment: Pressuring the other person into talking about a problem before they’re ready means they’re unlikely to bring their best self to the conversation. That’s not going to serve either of you well when you’re trying to talk about something that’s difficult already.
- What to do: Find out what they need in order to be ready for the conversation.
I can’t do this right now.
- The message: I have something else pressing on my agenda, or our location isn’t a good one for this.
- Comment: The right time and place for a difficult conversation contribute to its success, so it makes a lot of sense to postpone temporarily.
- What to do: Ask when it would be more convenient to discuss the matter and identify a mutually agreeable time and location. (If the other person won’t commit to a time, this may not be the real reason for avoiding the conversation and you’ll need to try to get more information.)
It’s not my problem.
- The message: I see the problem as yours or, at least, not about me.
- Comment: As long as you have a problem that’s going to weigh on you, then they also have a problem, because your problem will continue to color your interactions with them.
- A strategy: Let them know that as long as you see there’s a problem, you believe that things will be strained (uncomfortable, awkward, tense—whatever adjective is right for you) between you. So, even if they don’t believe the problem is connected to them, you hope they’ll understand that time spent now will probably save time and tension later. Find out more at How to Navigate the ‘Not My Problem’ Problem.
It’ll make things worse.
- The message: The conversation’s going to be messy and I fear it will do more damage.
- Comment: Difficult conversations can get messy, so don’t try to promise them yours won’t.
- A strategy: Strategize together how to prevent the conversation from doing more damage and what you’ll both do if you sense it is.
We’ve been through this all before.
- The message: This is the conversation that just won’t end and I’m weary of it.
- Comment: Some conversations do keep coming up in our important relationships and after a while, it does seem that putting more time in isn’t going to lead anywhere new. This happens when you’re solving the wrong problem or the way you’re talking about it gets in the way of work on the original problem.
- A Strategy: Discuss what it would take for this conversation to get its real due and put in the past once and for all. Be careful not to start having the conversation itself yet — focus on the “meta” conversation (the conversation about the conversation). This may be a lengthy discussion, albeit a crucial one, so plan for needing extra time.