Danielle was a corporate attorney, on the fast track to burnout. In addition to the long hours and high demands, she felt like she was watching her dream of owning a café drift further and further beyond reach. She and her husband, Rick, had agreed that “when the time was right,” she could shift gears, but between renovating the kitchen and paying their children’s private school tuition, finances were tight.Knowing that her family’s financial outlays weren’t likely to subside anytime soon, she felt trapped. At the same time, she was confident that between her culinary skills and business acumen, she had a pretty good chance of success with the café.
The only thing standing in between her and Danielle’s Bistro was a tough conversation with her husband.
Difficult conversations take many forms. Whether with a friend, your partner, a family member or someone at work, when the emotional stakes get high, so does the risk of a volatile conversation.
When you avoid a tough conversation, nothing changes — other than your growing level of frustration, which can fester into resentment.
Handled well, a difficult conversation can not only help you make an effective request or achieve an intended result; it can also deepen your relationship, leaving both parties feeling heard, understood and valued.
6 Strategies to handle tough conversations about career change
As Nancy Scheel, an executive and career coach who runs Jody Michael Associates’ Atlanta office explains, the following elements can help set the stage for conversational success — especially in emotionally-charged situations.
- Choose the right time — When either party is tired, stressed or preoccupied, a tough conversation is doomed to fail. Squeezing in an important discussion when you’re both out the door to work doesn’t afford the (time or) bandwidth for a true exchange of ideas. A lot of couples try talking late at night, when they finally have the luxury of “alone time,” only to find that they’re too tired to focus or reason. Parents and children whose schedules rarely overlap, can find this a particular challenge. Be proactive. Nancy recommends arranging a time to talk that is convenient for both parties — and conducive to healthy conversation.
- Provide a preview — “We need to talk” is one of the most anxiety-evoking phrases in the English language. At the same time, “I’m thinking of a making a career change” is a little too daunting. Without going into too much detail, summarize the topic of conversation. “Hey, I’d like to discuss some plans I’ve been exploring; can we set aside an hour or so after dinner on Tuesday to talk about them?” can help you and your partner or parent mentally prepare for a challenging conversation.
- Find the right place — A neutral setting is usually the best bet for a potentially difficult conversation, rendering both parties on equal footing. While you may not want to discuss private matters in a public venue like a coffee shop, try talking in a park or along the beach, where you can enjoy the calming effects of nature and find the privacy conducive to your discussion. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you might want to choose a common room in the house, like the kitchen or living room. Some people find the car a perfect place to talk; distractions are generally minimal, and the motion can be very soothing.
- Prepare — Before Danielle sat down with Rick, she looked at their family income and expenses for the past three years. She also did her due diligence so that she had a good handle on the costs of setting up a café in the area, including real estate, overhead and labor. Together, they were able to calculate an expected return on their investment — and come up with a plan to handle their household finances during the transition. Doing your homework ahead of time allows you to bring relevant and accurate facts to the conversation. When you come to the table prepared, you are more likely to be able to answer questions, address concerns and alleviate doubts that the other person might have.
- Be open to listening — Many people approach difficult conversations ready to talk, but, as Nancy points out, listening is just as (if not more) important. “Try to strike a balance between advocating for what you want and listening to the other person’s concerns. Engage in an open discussion, encouraging collaborative decision-making.” While Danielle thought that Rick’s concerns about the café were strictly financial, she learned that he was also worried that it would interfere with their family and couple time. Together, they were able to come up with creative ways for everyone to become involved with the café.
- Trust — Successful conversations depend on trust. For starters, it’s essential to trust yourself. Having self-confidence allows you to step outside your comfort zone, which is often the case when you’re asking for time, money or even emotional resources, all factors that can enter the equation during a career transition. Making a change to the status quo usually involves some level of risk, but a strong relationship can not only weather uncertainty, it can grow as a result.