Just writing the title makes me a little uncomfortable. Having those difficult conversations stirs up a range of emotions; all of which makes us want to avoid them. We fear saying the wrong thing and having the situation escalate or being misunderstood and not heard. Sometimes it just seems easier to not have the conversation than it is to have it. However, we all know that that only lasts for so long. Eventually, that difficult conversation has to take place.
Whether the difficult conversation has to happen with my husband, a client or student, or friend, I have a tool that makes those conversations much easier to have; The Awareness Wheel (see image below). It is a communication tool with a dual purpose, it provides both a framework for understanding a difficult situation and communicating about it. I was introduced to the Awareness Wheel as part of a Communications course in my Masters program and well I’ve been spreading the good news ever since.
It is easy and accessible to people of all ages and almost any situation. Using it has increased my own understanding of my experience in difficult situations and has given me a new way to share my experience with others that did not result in conflict or increased tension. It’s one of those things that seems too good to be true, but trust me, once you have the hang of it, it will become your “go to” strategy for having those difficult conversations.
Here is how it works:
It has 5 phases or steps for reflection and communication; sensing, thinking, feeling, want, and ask/actions.
Thinking: Next, identify your thoughts, ideas, and judgments. This is how you interpreted the actions you heard or observed.
Feeling: Then you identify how it made you feel, the emotions you have as a result of the experience. Caution: do not confuse thoughts with emotions. If you begin a sentence with “I feel like…” it will be a thought which follows, not an emotion. Here you want to focus on emotion words: I feel angry, sad, frustrated, etc .
Want: Now you can focus on what it is you want from yourself or others in this situation. Identify what you could do to resolve the situation or how you would like a similar situation handled differently in the future.
Ask/Actions: Lastly, you determine what actions (actual behaviors-not opinions or attitudes) you must do to resolve the issue or you would like from others to improve the situation in the present or future.
It is extremely helpful to use the tool to reflect on your experience or the situation before you communicate with the other person involved. This will help you eliminate a lot of the judgment you have about the situation and hone in on exactly how it made you feel and how to resolve. Much of what happens with difficult conversations is people get caught up in their version of the “story” which does not lead to resolution. Sometimes, the process of reflection alone can eliminate the need for any discussion at all. Consider the following example for reflection:
Yesterday when I was talking to Mary she said she didn’t have any time for me and walked away. I thought that was really rude and unfair because I had more to say. I felt ignored and frustrated when she walked away like she didn’t think I was important. I really wanted her to listen to me or make time to hear me and give me her opinion. Next time, I will ask her if she has time to listen to me before I delve into a topic.
After some reflection, you are able to identify both your role in the situation and what you want to happen differently in the future. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Now that you have more clarity about the situation you can use the same framework to communicate with the other person to resolve the situation. For example:
Hi Mary, do you have time to talk?
(If yes, proceed-if not, let her know you want to talk and ask when it would be a good time for you to get together to talk)
Yesterday, when I was talking to you, you said you didn’t have time to talk (use exact words-don’t paraphrase or rewrite the past) and you walked away (don’t add any adjectives here like “abruptly” or “with an attitude”).
I thought that it was rude and now I realize I had not asked you if you had time to talk. I was frustrated and felt ignored because I had more to say and wanted your advice. In the future when I want to talk to you, I’ll make sure you have time to talk. If you don’t have time to talk can you let me know before I get involved in my story?
Now Mary has been informed about the situation and you have given her a way to resolve the situation. Depending on her response you may have to reply, if so, continue to use the same framework until you come to an ask/action you both can agree upon.
The Awareness Wheel is most effective when used with “I” statements, and an attitude towards resolution. It is also a flexible tool, which means you can do the steps in any order and when communicating with another about a situation, you don’t have to use all 5 steps. Using the example above, one could simply say:
Hi Mary, do you have time to talk?…Yesterday, I wasn’t able to get your advice before you left, I was frustrated because I wanted your advice. In the future when I want to talk to you, I’ll make sure you have time to talk. Do you have time now?
Like any new skill, it will take some practice. Hopefully, once you become comfortable with it, you will find it as useful as I have to have those difficult conversations.
Interpersonal Communication Programs, Inc. (ICP) are the originators and registered copyright holders of the Awareness Wheel®.