Episode Transcript (with links to resources)
It happens to all of us, no matter how many times we’ve been in a difficult conversation: we get nervous. We feel stress. That stress can show up in lots of ways: in our body language, breathing patterns, our seeming inability to put words together in a logical order. Even when we figure out what we want to say and how to say it, we can tie ourselves up in knots.
Our question this episode: how can you work through stress so that you can effectively engage in a difficult conversation?
Welcome to episode 77 of How Can I Say This…, where we look to build connection and community through courageous conversations. I’m your host, Beth Buelow. Thanks for joining me! In this episode, I respond to a listener question about how to set aside nerves when there’s a tough conversation to be had.
Let’s get to the question. Here’s what Sharona wrote to me:
I normally feel stressed when I have to engage in a difficult conversation. In the past, I would prepare what to say mentally for days, but I realized that it does not help since the conversation changes while I talk with the person.
Every time I am in a difficult conversation, my voice starts shaking and my whole body gets tense (even though I am I breathing deeply for a few times and I slow down when talking). Even though I am self-aware, I cannot prevent my voice from shaking and my expression from showing on my face.
My question is how can I say difficult and delicate things while maintaining a clear voice, body composure and neutral expression?
I suspect as you listened to Sharona’s question, you could empathize with her. Even if you don’t experience the same stress, you know what it feels like. What she describes reminds me so much of what people describe when they have to speak in front of a group. I think many of the same physical responses that we have when we’re in the spotlight as a speaker – butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, tense shoulders, changes in our breathing – all can show up when we’re having a difficult conversation. Our brain might not distinguish between talking to one person and talking to a crowd – it just knows that there’s possible danger and vulnerability, and it wants to get out of there as quickly as possible!
I share all of that to provide what I hope is some comfort: it’s normal to feel stress when we’re in conflict or sharing something that’s difficult for us to say or maybe difficult for someone else to hear. One book that helped me tremendously when I started public speaking more frequently was Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker. He spends an entire chapter normalizing the stress response and offering insights as to why we react the way we do and how to counteract it. He offers that everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Carson to Thomas Jefferson to Bono has shared that they get nervous before performances or speeches.
It might not seem that performance jitters are the same as what Sharonda is describing, but I’d argue that they are pretty darn close. And that brings me to my first piece of advice: release the idea that you have to “perform” during a difficult conversation. You might not think “I’m performing” during a conversation, but in a way, we are. We’re conscious of saying the right things, showing the right emotion or responding in the right way. We think we have to perhaps play a role of the calm, cool, collected person who isn’t bothered by saying difficult things. Let go of that pressure. It’s not a performance; it’s a conversation. It’s about relationship. If you care enough to take the risk to have the discussion, then your intention is good. You want to improve the situation in some way. Trust that intention. You’re not performing; you’re talking.
My second piece of advice is centered on one word in Sharona’s question that I’m going to take literally. She says she “mentally” practices. I totally get this. As an introvert, I do a lot of mental rehearsing in my head before I have to say something important. I try different approaches and phrases. Sometimes I write it out first, as a way of thinking it through.
But what I sometimes forget to do is say the words out loud. And saying the words out loud makes a HUGE difference in how I feel about them. I might feel silly doing it, but I just practice in my car or in my office or when no one else is around. It sounds strange, but one way I’ve gotten more comfortable thinking out loud is by using the voice to text function on my phone, whether to send an email or a text. I used to be terrible at it! I’d get flustered and talk in circles and just overall make no sense. But since I’ve been practicing, I can do it pretty well now. It helps me to HEAR myself THINK, which I believe is a skill that helps us when we’re in difficult conversations. In an odd way, it increases my trust that I can just talk and what I say will make sense. And that comes in handy in situations where I’m not sure what to expect and I have to think out loud.
So Sharona, if you don’t already, I highly recommend you practice out loud.
And to that end, my third piece of advice: figure out your opening sentence and practice that until you feel completely comfortable with it. That’s often the hardest part. I find those moments before I speak my first sentence to be the most stressful. If I know what I’m going to say before I say it, it’s easier. Not easy, but easier.
Along with knowing how you’re going to open the conversation, it’s important to know your intention. I like to borrow from the book Crucial Conversations for this one. The authors advise you ask yourself a few questions in preparation: what do I want for myself? What do I want for the other person? What do I want for the relationship? These questions help to keep your focus on the intention. Let’s say I need to have a conversation about a money issue with my partner. What do I want for myself? I want to share my anxiety about the situation and why I have been upset. I want to be heard and understood. What do I want for the other person? I want them to have a chance to share what they need and to know that I care about their needs. What do I want for the relationship? I want us to be able to have calmer discussions about the issue and to trust that each of us wants to do what’s right.
Thinking those things through – and practicing those thoughts out loud – can really help keep the focus on your intention, not your anxiety.
Sharona is doing the right things, paying attention to her breathing and trying to slow down her speech. Keep doing that. Take a moment before the conversation to relax your face. I sometimes don’t realize how tense my face is until I consciously let my eyebrows, eyes, cheeks and mouth relax. I let my gaze soften on a point at least 15 feet in front of me, and let my awareness focus on softening the muscles in my face. Try doing that before you practice your opening sentence out loud.
You can also try power posing to get in touch with both stillness and energy in your body. I tried this with a coaching client yesterday, and she found it to be a powerful way to get centered and grounded when before she felt stress. This is a variation on a pose that researcher Amy Cuddy offered in her TED Talk. I’m going to lead you through it now, and I suggest if you can, you take a moment to do the pose along with me. It goes without saying, if you’re driving or otherwise occupied, come back to this and try it when you’re not moving!
Stand up, shoes off, feet shoulder-width apart. Close your eyes, or if you want to keep them open, pick a spot 15-20 feet in front of you that you can softly focus on. Relax your arms at your sides. Take a few deep breaths. Feel the weight of your body pushing and sinking your feet into the earth. Now shift and feel the earth supporting you, holding you up, without any effort on your part. Put your hands on your hips, keep your chin up, keep deep breathing. Now put your hands up in the air, making a Y or V shape, like you just crossed the finish line of a marathon. Keep your chin up, keep breathing, eyes softly closed or focused on a point on the horizon. Hold that pose and feel the energy from the earth coming up through your feet, your ankles, your legs, your hips, your stomach, your heart, your throat, and out the top of your head and the tips of your fingers. When you’re ready, put your hands back on your hips, take a breath or two, then release your hands to your sides. A few more breaths, then sit back down or do whatever you were going to do next.
NOW practice your opening sentence out loud. Amy Cuddy says that if you hold the power pose of arms up in the air long enough, your cortisol stress hormones decrease, and testosterone, which increases your assertiveness, increases. There have been subsequent studies that challenge that science, but since I’ve noticed a difference when I do the pose, it doesn’t matter so much to me. It can be scientific or a placebo effect – in this case, as long as it works, I don’t care!
One final piece of advice: if it feels safe to do so, let the other person know that you’re nervous. It might sound like, “There’s something important I want to talk about with you, and I’m a bit nervous about it because I value our relationship, so bear with me if I’m a little shaky.” That gives you permission to be real, to show your emotion. And often the side effect of doing that is that it can calm you and the other person down. It has a way of diffusing tension. Showing that kind of vulnerability might be too risky in some conversations, but it’s something to consider. It’s probably safer more often than you’d think. After all, we’re human beings. We get nervous. We trip over our words. We get stuck. We get upset. The key is trusting yourself that when you show up as a vulnerable, honest human being with good intentions, you can handle whatever happens.
These are all strategies that contribute to giving you a sense of control in what feels like an uncontrollable situation. Yes, there will be moments in the conversation that you can’t predict and that might be uncomfortable. Recognize where you have control and let go of needing to control the things you can’t. And underneath it all, trust you can handle it.
Your call to action is to practice anything here that has resonated with you the next time you’re going into a difficult conversation or stressful situation. If I had to pick one that would make the biggest difference, it’d be to determine your opening sentence and say it out loud enough that it feels natural. Base that opening sentence on your intention, what you want from the conversation and the other person. Come from a place of love and connection, and you’ll be just fine.
If you have a “how can I say this?” question to submit for a future episode, you’ll find the online submission form at howcanisaythis.com. You can also send me your question directly to beth @ howcanisaythis.com. No matter how you submit a question, you have the choice to be completely anonymous if you like.
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This is Beth Buelow, and you’ve been listening to How Can I Say This. Our podcast producer is Paul Messing, and our theme music is by Brett Anderson. Thanks to Sharona for her wonderful and very relatable question, to you for joining me today, and I invite you to take what you’ve learned here and use it to speak up, speak out, and speak courageously.