life coaching

Facing a difficult conversation? Why a script can save your life.

Have you ever dreaded a difficult conversation? Most of us have, and most of us know what it’s like to toss and turn and lose sleep the night before the big talk. We think that by playing out scenarios in our head, by finding facts to bolster an argument, by mustering up the courage to say what we really think, we can come out ahead.

But if that strategy has ever gone south on you — if you ended up flustered or sidetracked or unable to say what you mean — you know that courage and facts may have little to do with the effectiveness of a difficult conversation.

Enter the script.

A script is — in its simplest form — a roadmap for the conversation you want to have. It is both a plan and a transcript of how you’d like things to go. It makes clear your strategy for the conversation (“I’m going to be kind but emphasize my boundaries.”) And it also gives you words to use (“I’m sorry you are disappointed in my choice. I hope you can understand my decision to put my children first.”)

I’ve used a script in a variety of settings, including emotional conversations with family members and potentially litigious situations with employees. In all instances, using a script saved me worry and heartache, and I’m convinced it resulted in better outcomes. And each and every time I have used a script, I’ve avoided losing sleep after the fact in pointless second-guessing exercises.

For me, a script starts with deep thinking about 1) the purpose of the conversation, why I feel compelled to talk to someone about a difficult topic, 2) what I hope to achieve, and 3) what words represent my best and highest self.

Let’s start with purpose. Presumably, there’s a clear and compelling reason why you need to participate in a difficult conversation. It’s worth saying that you should think about the reason and make sure it’s grounded in resolving a situation, not just getting something off your chest. But assuming the conversation cannot and should not be avoided, assuming you have a values-based reason for moving ahead, write down your purpose. It might be something like “My friend is taking advantage of me by asking for so many favors. It’s causing me to neglect my family’s needs and I need to be clear about what I can and cannot do to assist her moving forward.”

Next, think about what you hope to achieve. Be specific and realistic. In the scenario I’ve already mentioned, it may not be realistic to write something like “I want to stop feeling like I have to help my friend every time she asks, but I don’t want my friend to be disappointed in me.” Remember, you cannot predict or control how the other person will react. You can only control your own actions and emotions, so you might write something like “I want to let her know that I cannot continue providing unlimited favors. I want to express that I love her and value her friendship, but that my time will be limited moving forward as I focus on my family responsibilities.”

Finally, think of words or phrases that truly express your intentions and values. Write down sentences, in the order you’d like to say them if uninterrupted, that express your highest values and make the point at hand. A script for the example scenario might sound like the following:

“Julie, I called today because I want to talk to you about something that’s on my heart. I love you and I value our friendship. Lately, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with the number of favors you’ve asked me to do. I want to be the kind of friend you can rely on to lend a hand, but I’ve got to balance my responsibilities to my own family. I hope you will understand that I (will/may) not be able to say yes next time you ask me to (dog sit/babysit/lend you money/insert example).”

“I have been happy to help you in the past. My help is an expression of how much I care about you. But if I am honest, I have felt a little bit taken advantage of. And I have neglected my family to help you. So I am trying to do a better job of balancing my life and speaking up about my own needs. I appreciate the honesty we are able to have with each other. Thank you for listening and I hope you can honor my feelings.”

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to anticipate how the individual will react to your words and your message. Perhaps add additional phrases based on your brainstorming.

For example, if you think Julie will say:

“But you always say yes! And you told me to ask anytime.”

You might respond:

“I understand how that could be confusing for you. But my circumstances have changed and that’s why I decided to talk to you about it.”

The point here is to anticipate what the other person might say and provide a response that isn’t based on emotion or defensiveness, which are common ways to react in the heat of the moment.

Once you have a script that you think will get you through the bulk of the conversation, be sure to identify a key phrase that you can go back to — as many times as you need — if the conversation goes poorly or the person throws you a curveball. For example:

Julie: I can’t even believe you brought this up! You know my life is a mess right now and you’re being so selfish!

You: I’m sorry this is upsetting to you. I love you. I also need to take care of my responsibilities, and that means re-balancing my time and choices.

Julie: You’re just saying this because you’re still mad about (name a situation)!

You: I’m sorry this is upsetting to you. I love you. I also need to take care of my responsibilities, and that means re-balancing my time and choices.

The point is — you need a phrase that expresses your highest values and allows you to respond no matter what is thrown at you, especially if you get flustered. I once used my key phrase five times in a difficult conversation with a family member. The individual ended up hanging up on me (not at all what I expected!), but the key phrase kept me from getting emotional and made sure I stayed on track. It also kept me from giving in to a demanding family member when the individual tried to guilt me into a favor I wasn’t able to grant.

You may be thinking that a script is fine for a phone conversation but what about conversations that happen in person? I’m here to tell you I’ve taken my script, printed on index cards, to in-person meetings before. (A standard size sheet would work just fine, too.) If you think it feels awkward, simply say something like “Julie, this conversation is so important to me that I wrote down what I want to say. I love you and I want to get this right. I was afraid of feeling flustered so I brought along a sheet to help me be sure to express my true feelings.”

I’ve also memorized my script before. One instance in which I memorized my script involved a conversation about a particularly tricky situation at work, and the act of memorizing the script and rehearsing it actually calmed me down. But I still took index cards with me to the meeting because if emotion prevailed and my memory failed, I wanted to make sure I had my script in hand.

If you’ve got a difficult conversation you need to tackle, try my advice and let me know how it works. Or — if the conversation is so tricky you don’t know where to begin, get in touch with me. I’d love to help you think through it. I can also write your script. Either way, you’ll be on the path to resolving your situation with the best possible outcome.

2 thoughts on “Facing a difficult conversation? Why a script can save your life.”

  1. I came across your Instagram page last year and immediately was drawn to your fashion “joys” and your decorating and food posts. I’m a pastry chef from Chicago. I really enjoy your page and always find it inspiring and uplifting and full of great ideas. I will be following you on your new endeavor and wish you all the best. I’m in the process of healing from an abusive marriage and a rape that took place over 40 years ago. Times were different then, so I never spoke of it. I look for positive women to follow on social media and your posts have been helpful and encouraging. Best of luck and joy to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s