The Gift of a Difficult Conversation


In reflecting on the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life, I’ve realized that most of them came to me by way of some kind of difficult conversation.

One of my more painful childhood memories is of having done something bad and of the difficult conversation I had to have with my parents about it. They didn’t yell. They didn’t spank me. What they hit me with was much more painful than any other punishment: they looked at me straight in the eye and told me how disappointed they were. I would have preferred the temporary pain of a spanking over the anguish and guilt of having done something to disappoint my parents.

The good news is that difficult and painful conversations often offer life-transforming lessons. When these life lessons are acknowledged and embraced, the difficult conversation becomes a gift. If we are lucky, time and perspective gives us the wisdom needed to reflect back on the negative experience or constructive criticism. In time, we remember it for the positive change it inspired in our lives. The gift is the opportunity to gain insights we might have missed. It is then the ability to use those insights to improve ourselves and achieve our full potential in every area of our lives.

I know my parents didn’t enjoy telling their young son how his youthful indiscretion was a big disappointment to them. I’m sure it was difficult for them to see how powerfully their negative opinion affected me. But the conversation had such a powerful and enduring impact on me because they expressed their disappointment with genuine compassion and unconditional love.

Unfortunately, for every gift of a lesson we may learn from a difficult conversation, we squander many more because the information is either too difficult to deliver or too difficult to receive.

Many of us avoid having the difficult conversation because it is too awkward or painful to initiate. No matter how badly we think a person may need the input we have to offer, we often avoid the topic for fear that we will hurt the person’s feelings or that our message will be rejected as misplaced or arbitrary.

Similarly, many of us respond to negative feedback in a knee-jerk defensive posture. Our egos get in the way and we feel personally attacked. Instead of listening to and embracing the information for the gift it may be delivering, we defend our actions, assign nefarious intent to the person offering the feedback and look for something worse to say about them.

In addition to rejecting the gift that these difficult conversations might offer, our defensive reactions send a message that we are not interested in or receptive to feedback. The more often our reaction to constructive criticism or negative feedback reflects defensiveness and deflects responsibility for any wrongdoing, the less likely we are to receive such gifts in the future

One way to lessen our aversion to initiating a difficult conversation and delivering negative feedback is to think about it in terms of the gift the information might offer, and to deliver the information as delicately and compassionately as possible. If we have genuinely positive intent and hope to offer insights a person might use to improve his or herself – and his or her performance and ability to engage constructively with others – we should do our best to remove all anger and emotion from our delivery.

If we can engage in the difficult conversation with compassion, the other person may receive it as the gift we intended it to be. But if the person rejects our gift and becomes defensive, we must be careful to avoid our own tendencies toward defensiveness. We should be quick to apologize, perhaps for having bungled the delivery, and assure the person of our good intentions. We should remind ourselves that we all often need time before we can fully understand, accept and embrace these kinds of gifts.

When we are on the receiving end of negative information or feedback, our ability to unwrap the underlying gift is directly proportional to our ability to put aside our egos and embrace the information openly. The first response should always be, “thank you.” And our next course of action should be to consider all the reasons why the input is likely correct and worthy of our consideration and reflection. We should avoid the most common of human reactions, forming a long list of reasons why the feedback is misplaced or inspired by negative intent. After all, we should ask ourselves, why has the person offering us negative feedback pushed through their own aversion to conflict to tell us something we need to know but may not want to hear?

The unfortunate result of avoiding difficult conversations is that the information still always finds it way to expression, usually in the form of venting sessions. These conversations are held in hallways and break rooms where people speak in hushed voices with individuals who have no business receiving the information. These are the easy but misguided conversations, where important feedback degrades into churning rumor mills, and where the helpful gifts we might have gained from difficult conversations express themselves instead in a culture of negativity.

I can’t remember for sure how well I reacted to the difficult conversation I had with my parents back in my early childhood. I probably took on a defensive posture, found some spurious rationale to defend my actions and attributed negative intent to my parents and their misguided decision to burden me with their disappointment.

Fortunately, with time and perspective, I recognized the importance of the message, embraced the difficult insight into myself and welcomed the gift they were offering. As I have grown older and a bit wiser in the years since, I’ve tried to be more mindful about acknowledging and embracing the gifts these difficult conversations can offer.


This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.

Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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