Handling difficult conversations with anxiety

It’s a sweeping statement, made on gut feel, from my own experience, but people with anxiety do not like confrontation, and telling someone something they don’t want to hear definitely feels like confrontation. Whether it’s at work, or as you go through life. Add to that the unpredictable nature of people and you have an anxious persons worst nightmare!

I’ve had my fair share of difficult conversations with people at work and as someone with anxiety I’ve never wanted to have them. But the need to have these conversations in life isn’t likely to go away, whether at work or in life in general.

So I thought I’d share how I get ready for those difficult conversations and limit the amount of anxiety I experience building up to and whilst having them…

Prepare – it sounds obvious but make sure you are prepared for the conversation. You cannot plan for how people will respond but you can prepare for what you want to say. Have all the facts available and, importantly, use them.

Time and place – just because you are prepared doesn’t mean it’s the right time to have the conversation. People have lots of things going on in their lives – make sure you choose the right time. Also choosing the right environment to have a difficult conversation is key – choose a busy, public place and you may find the person you need to talk to isn’t able to be open and honest (and may even feel embarrassed). Choosing the right time and place can make a difficult conversation a lot easier. So even if you’ve built yourself up and you are ready – make sure you check they are too.

Have the conversation – email or messaging someone is the easy option, you get to put across your message without any confrontation. But email will never carry across your tone, body language etc and because of that, in my experience, can be misinterpreted easily. By all means use it in addition if needed, but don’t use it as the primary means to communicate something difficult.

People are selective – it is worth finishing any hard conversation by summarising the key points. People filter things out and can be selective in what they have heard (people with anxiety should be very aware of this as we do it all the time – usually focusing on the worst bits!) – sometimes that can mean they distort things either by not accepting the information or over accepting it (i once fed back on a performance issue to someone at work who then generalised this information by saying “I’m hopeless at everything”).

Listen and be thankful – it would be abnormal if the other person didn’t want to have their say, put across their side of the story etc – don’t let all your preparation get in the way of not listening to someone – you may find out something you didn’t know about them, something that explains their behaviour. You may not agree with everything said (and they may not agree with everything you said) but you should still be listening. Always remember to thank someone for their time, you might not have enjoyed the conversation and can’t wait to get out of the room, chances are they didn’t either – but nevertheless they had the conversation with you and that deserves acknowledgement. Don’t expect the same in return, would you thank someone straight away for someone telling you something you didn’t want to hear?

Needless to say – it’s important that people with anxiety find a way to have the hard conversations, we owe it to ourselves and the people we care and are responsible for.

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