Dr. John Townsend helps us navigate those touchy and dreaded situations.
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Are you facing a tough talk with someone, and dreading it? If so, you're like most of us. It puts a knot in your stomach, has you obsessing about it when you're trying to sleep, and has you finding ways to put it off or avoid it altogether. Yet sooner or later, you know it simply has to be done. It could be about any number of problems:

  • Breaking up with someone you're dating
  • Solving an anger issue with your spouse that's not OK
  • Talking with a valuable-but-defensive employee about how they alienate people
  • Letting an adult child know that it's time to launch from the house
  • Conferring with your boss about a critical attitude that demotivates you
  • Speaking to a volunteer in the church you pastor, about their chronic lateness to meetings and events
  • Telling a friend you'd like for your lunches to be a bit more about your world, and not all about theirs
  • Talking to your teen about finding weed in the bedroom

We were designed by God to work out problems with each other: "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Eph. 4:15)." Yet, so often, when we try to have the talk, things break down, the other person becomes defensive, or matters escalate. So we become discouraged and just try to live with the situation, which hardly ever makes things better.

An effective and proven solution to the difficult conversation problem is a role play conversation. Simply put, a role play is a "practice" conversation you have with someone who is helping you, which prepares and equips you for the real conversation. A good role play conversation provides two benefits: First, it decreases your stress and anxiety, because you are facing these during the practice, and you'll feel better after having it under your belt; and second, it increases your confidence and skills, because you'll find new ways of having "the talk."

Role play conversations require someone who is skilled in relationships, listening and communication well, who is your "coach" for this experience. It could be a friend, or a professional coach. In the conversation, your coach takes on the role of the "best you": that is, he or she navigates through the talk in a way that you can learn from and use, when you actually get to the real deal. You, on the other hand, actually take on the "role" of the person you need to talk to: the date, spouse, child, employee, boss or friend. during the process. There are several things to do that will help you:

  • Beforehand, give your coach a summary of the problem. Let them know what's going on, as in the examples above, but make it personal to your situation. Tell them the impact the problem has had on you and others. It's probably been rough on you! Has it made you frustrated, helpless, angry or even afraid? And, most of all, tell them your desired outcome. What do you want the result to be? A change in attitude? Admitting they handled things poorly? Better behavior or performance? Getting help? This will equip your coach focus on the outcome that you need most.
  • Have the coach start the role play conversation by stating the problem. Just have them say to you (as you role play the other person) what's going on, in a kind but firm way, and what the desired outcome needs to be.
  • Say whatever defensive things the other person might say. You might make any number of statements when your coach puts the matter before you. Here are a few examples:

o Justifying: I didn't do anything wrong, it was just a matter of perception.

o Blame: It was someone else's fault, not mine.

o Diversion: But what about all the times that you did things wrong?

o Escalation: Speaking louder and in more aggressive language.

o Guilt messages: I just can never do things right for you, can I?

Don't worry about it feeling weird, it will become more natural. This will be easier than you think, because you will probably find, as you go along that you have lots of memories of conversational train wrecks in your mind that emerge. Just go with it.

  • Observe how your coach handles the situation. This is importantbecause you're picking up tips on how you'll handle it during the real thing. Your coach needs to do several things to make it happen the right way:

Don't get triggered: They need to not get hooked into getting angry or argumentative, but just stay steady.

Stay warm and positive: As much as possible, they need toconvey that they are "for" the other person, and "for" a win-win solution.

Listen well: Everyone needs their day in court, so your coach should make sure you are heard out; that's what the real person will need from you.

Be firm on the issue:  They need to compromise when they can, but also stick to the essential boundaries.

Stick to the subject:  They should keep the focus on the outcome, and not let your distractions divert them away from the subject at hand (very important).

  • Talk with your coach afterwards about what you learned.  Tell them what you saw in their statements, facial expressions and body language that you can use during the real conversation. Ask them what they observed as well, as they will be able to equip you even more, from the chair they were sitting in. It will take work, but if you keep at it, it will pay off: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters" (Col. 3:23).

Once you walk through this, then try to have the actual conversation within a week of the role play, as the experience and the skills will be fresh in your mind. And best wishes for this. For more info, my organization provides live phone and video sessions with our certified Role Play Coaches at TownsendNOW.com, my digital life solutions platform. God bless you!

Dr. John Townsend is the New York Times bestselling author of Boundaries and 30 other books, totaling 10 million sales. He is Founder of the Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling, the Townsend Leadership Program, an organizational consultant and a psychologist. He and his wife Barbi live in Newport Beach, California and have two adult sons, Ricky and Benny. John and his sons play in their own band, The Bandits, at local parties and engagements!

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