critical-conversationsWhen I think of tough conversations, the first thing that comes to mind is the pit in the bottom of my stomach.  The sweaty hands and racing heart.  The knowing I need to talk through an issue related to my baby, my own life, the division of household tasks (you name it).  But, at the same time, dreading that conversation.

I always marvel that something as seemingly-benign as spoken words can elicit such a fight-or-flight response from us as humans.  It’s not as if someone is usually coming after us with a bludgeon if we say the wrong thing.  But wow, can that feeling of a threat be powerful.

Lately, I’ve been getting more and more questions from new moms about how exactly to go about having difficult conversations.  Sometimes, these conversations are with a significant other about the division of household labor.  Other times, they’re with a nanny about how much she is feeding the baby.  Or perhaps they are with a boss about flexible schedules.  A few years ago, a more conflict-avoidant version of myself got some fantastic help from a leadership coach about effective ways to handle these interactions.

Today, I’m sharing with you the strategies she taught me.

I love that what I’m about to share is really a step-by-step script.  I’ve turned each step into something that starts with “S” too, so you can think about this as the 4 S’s of Critical Conversations.

In addition to the four steps, I’m going to give you some specific words you can say when having these tough talks.  (I was inspired in this by Dr. Steve Silvestro’s recent article around parenting on the topic of “success,” in which he actually gives us EXACT WORDS we can use with our kiddos.  Hallelujah for having a script!!)

Example:  You are on week 11 of a 12 week maternity leave.  Your partner took two weeks off right after the baby was born but has been back at work ever since.  Being the one who is home during the day, you’ve assumed a vast majority of the household tasks.  This list of task ranges from cooking dinner, to cleaning bottles and pump parts, to straightening up, taking out the trash, washing hundreds of loads of laundry, etc.  You get that sinking feeling that you’re not going to be able to keep up with all of these tasks when you head back to work next week, but you’re dreading the conversation with your partner about re-negotiating the division of household labor.  You are both smitten with your baby but ridiculously exhausted.  Both your and your partner’s paid gigs tend to be on the demanding side.

How can you approach a conversation with your partner about the division of household labor?

Use These 4 S’s to Take the Fear out of Tough Conversations:

Step 1:  Step Away.

Most importantly, while your head is bursting with fear, frustration, anger, injustice, and every other feeling under the sun, don’t start this conversation with your significant other.  If you do it now, you might just wind up on a tirade about how much you’re doing around the house at the moment.  And about how exhausted you are.  That won’t get you the results you’re looking for to ease that transition back to work.

Instead, try a few strategies to let yourself feel what you feel, sort through those emotions, and explore options.   Journal about it.  Call a close friend and vent.  Come down off the so-called amygdala hijack first.

  • Say this:  Nothing!  (Seriously: while you’re sorting through your feelings, don’t have the conversation.)  I’m not advocating avoidance; just delay until you are in a better frame of mind.

Step 2:  Shared Commitments.

Once you’ve calmed down and found a good, appropriate time and place for the conversation, begin by articulating your shared commitments.  First, think about those things that you and the person you’re speaking with authentically share as values.  This puts you both on the same team for the rest of the conversation and has you working toward the same goals.

  • Say this: You and I are both so committed to making sure our baby thrives.  We are both committed to helping one another find fulfillment in our careers.   I know we are also both committed to figuring out how to make household tasks – like food preparation and chores – run smoothly.

Step 3:  Short Version of the Facts

In just a few sentences, describe the facts that are necessary for the conversation.  As much as possible, limit this description to facts, and not interpretations of things.  (Example: fact = “the dishes are sitting in the kitchen sink”; interpretation: “you always walk by dirty dishes in the kitchen sink without noticing they are there or doing anything about them.”)  Be a minimalist here – no need to wax on about the problem, just get in and out with the essentials.

  • Say this:  My return to work is only a week away.  While I have been home on maternity leave, I have been doing a lot of the laundry, bottle pump washing, cooking, and night feedings.  I am worried about how all of this is going to work when I am back at work full time.

Step 4:  State a Specific Request

What are you hoping to get out of the conversation?  By thinking about a request in advance – and making it specific – it is more likely that you will be able to work toward something you’d consider to be a good outcome.  And by stating the request as just that – an ask that your conversation partner can say yes or no to – you honor his or her autonomy and opinions.

  • Say this:  My request is that we sit down together for 30 minutes tomorrow night, after baby has gone to sleep, to map out all the chores and tasks we know need to get done.  We can brainstorm ways we can tackle them ourselves and/or ask others for help.  Will you join me in doing this tomorrow?

Are these steps a magic formula for getting what you want 100% of the time?  Of course not.  But will they calm you down and reduce anxiety so you can have a more productive conversation and feel more confident about your ability to navigate rocky terrain?  Absolutely.

The beautiful thing is, I found that once I got rolling in using this structure and gained confidence with it, I didn’t have to adhere so tightly to the formula anymore.  Instead, I can now follow the spirit of it.  I liked having these four steps as a starting point, though.

Want additional resources about how to have tough conversations?  Check out this awesome book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

What other tools have you found to be helpful in navigating tough talk?  Please share them in comments below.

Returning to work after maternity leave and want more support?  Check out the Mindful Return E-course – next session starts soon!

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