Patrick Schwerdtfeger is a motivational speaker who can speak about communication skills, especially about difficult or awkward subjects, at your next business event. Contact us to check availability. The full transcript of the above video is included below.


Full Video Transcript:

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Strategic Business Insights. Today we’re going to talk about difficult subjects – talking about difficult subjects. There are a lot of people out there who really don’t like talking about difficult, awkward, personal, intimate—think bad sex, right? Who likes to talk about bad sex? How do you tell your spouse or your partner that what they’re doing is not pleasing you? It’s a perfect example of just a really awkward topic that’s difficult.

So how do you talk about difficult subjects? I’ve got three strategies for you. But the bottom line is that a lot of people—I’m going to get to these strategies in just a second, but—people live with these 900-pound elephants standing right in front of them that they don’t acknowledge. I see this everywhere, not just in business settings – in personal settings, like couples or friendships where there’s like an obvious topic everybody knows it’s an issue. Everybody knows it’s an issue but no one’s willing to talk about it.

You’ve got to clear the air. You’ve got to bring it up. You can practice this stuff. It’s a muscle – you can get better at it. You can get better at this stuff. Talking about difficult subjects is something you can get better at, because if you don’t here’s what’s going to happen—let’s say a husband-and-wife team, just as an example—if you don’t clear the air, then both people will retreat to their shed, their metaphorical shed in the backyard, and they start polishing their weapons.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about their arguments of why they’re right and you’re wrong. They go in their metaphorical shed, in a mental place on their own, when they’re by themselves, you’re not around, and they think about all the ways why they’re right and you’re wrong. To me, that’s a metaphor for “they’re polishing their weapons.” They’re polishing their guns in their shed.

And the other person is doing the same thing. So the woman’s doing it, thinking about how her husband is totally wrong in whatever the situation is and she’s right, and her husband’s doing the same thing, thinking how his wife’s crazy, she’s the one who’s wrong, and he’s the one who’s right. They’re both just polishing their weapons.

What happens? They’re moving further and further and further apart, and when that happens then you switch from thinking about positive things about your partner to thinking negative things about your partner. And as I’ve said on a million videos before, thoughts and emotions are magnets. If you think one negative thought about your wife, more are sure to follow and you’re going to think worse and worse about her and be angry at her. You’re going to get more and more angry. She’s going to do the same thing about you. So you’ve got to clear the air. You’ve got to find a way to talk about these subjects.

So what are the strategies? Number one, triangulation. Triangulation is something I do probably almost every single day, one way or another. I do it in front of audiences that I speak to and I do it with friends of mine. I do it with tiny little children – friends of mine have kids. They’re the perfect example, actually. When you’re communicating with a little child, say 1, 2, 3 years old, young children, they’re quite often shy with strangers or even people they know, like a child who’s maybe met me before but not that often. So when I come and visit or whatever, then I see that child, quite often that child will be a little bit shy at the beginning.

Here’s what most people do: They come right up to the kid and they’re like, “Hi kid! Hey, how are you?” and they start doing things and trying, “Hi!” whatever, trying to get the kid’s attention, trying to get the kid to smile. That’s a very confrontational approach. You’re going head-to-head with that kid. That’s very confrontational, and from the child’s perspective, they’re like blown over and there’s just much fear. Their automatic defense mechanism goes up, kind of their fight or flight. They’re like, “I’m being attacked. I have to protect myself.”

Instead, you can just go up to near the child and start playing with some of the toys that the child is playing, or not taking his or her toys but maybe another one that’s nearby that he or she is not using—let’s say it’s a girl, she’s not using—and just worry about playing, just practically ignore the child and just start playing with the toy. The child is immediately going to notice that you’re right there beside her and that you’re playing with a toy. That’s safe. It’s not an attacking mode.

What have you done? You’ve triangulated. Now there’s not two things in the situation, there’s three – there’s you, the child, and the toys. So, metaphorically, you and the child are now sitting at the same side of a table and the toy is on the other side of the table. So you’re both looking at this third thing. You’ve triangulated. The focus is there. So you’ve eliminated the confrontational setting.

Well, you can do the same thing with people. You can do the same thing with almost any situation, whether it’s one person, a spouse, an intimate partner, or even like an audience that you speak to. You can say, “Look, we have this reality that we all face.” You’re triangulating – “Oh, it’s the reality. It’s over there. What are we going to do about this reality?” You’re triangulating. It’s a very good way to talk about a subject that’s difficult by putting it in its own place so they don’t feel attacked. That’s the whole key, is you don’t want to attack.

Secondly, admit your vulnerability or your weakness or your fault first. One of the best ways to get someone to open up to you is to share something personal about you first, just on your own – something vulnerable, something where maybe you feel a little bit inadequate. Maybe you feel a little bit ashamed about something or you have some vulnerability or some weakness, or you did something wrong. You say, “I want to talk to you about something I don’t feel good about. Here’s something I’m vulnerable about.”

Well, human beings have a natural instinct that if you share something vulnerable to someone else, they have a natural instinct to want to share something vulnerable about them in exchange. There’s a natural urge. It’s like a magnet. So if you put something out there where you’re saying, “Look, I’m sharing this,” they’re probably going to share back, and now all of a sudden you’ve got an engagement where they feel safe because you did it first. You brought the risk out by being vulnerable first, and so now they feel more comfortable talking back to you in a vulnerable way as well.

And then you can start escalating and start engaging and digging in. Be sure to always share more. You can’t just share once and be done with it – you’ve got to keep sharing. Be part of the dialogue. Be part of the sharing process: “I know how you feel. This is how it affects me when I’m in that similar situation,” or “I was in a situation once and this is what I did. I don’t know if I handled it right. I still feel uncomfortable about it.” That kind of sharing will invite the other person to share more, and you can start to finally understand what’s underneath the surface.

And number three, express the issue or the problem as if though it’s obvious. Let’s go back to the beginning, that bad sex example. Most people will avoid saying that thing, bad sex. “You know, I don’t think…the sex isn’t good.” I know it’s an absurd example, but it’s a good example in a way because it’s a very uncomfortable topic. But meanwhile, if you just treat it as obvious, it’s actually another form of triangulation, but you’ve treated it as obvious to say, “Look, we both know this is not working. It’s not working and, you know…” In a way it’s triangulation. The two really overlap.

I have a friend of mine who really struggles with communication, and when I was talking to him about it I was like, “Look, you know this is an issue, right? I mean, I’ve got things in my personality that are not very good. You know this. We’ve lived long enough. You’ve heard this feedback a million times. You know this is an issue. Here’s what I suggest,” or, “How do you feel about this or that?” Treat is as obvious. And then the person, just in your words, the way you say it, “Look, we know this is an issue…” and you’ve almost dismissed the issue in a way. You’re like, “It’s obvious. We know it. There’s nothing to be ashamed about. We’ve already acknowledged it.”

It’s like saying the sun is up. Of course the sun’s up. There’s no debate about the sun being up. So what are we going to do about the sun being up because it’s hot out as a result of the sun being up or whatever? What you’re saying is there’s an issue which we both know. It’s completely obvious. There’s no debating this. So now that with know that it’s there, the implications are what we can work on together, or the implications are something that you could do this about or that about. Treat the problem as obvious.

Now, I’m sure there are other strategies. These are the three communication skills that I tend to focus on and there are entire books about this type of stuff. The key is, “Don’t attack.” As soon as you attack, as soon as you have that confrontational setting, the person is going to go into defensive mode, which is going to do the opposite of what you want. They’re going to retract even more and they’re going to share even less. So don’t attack and either triangulate or admit your side of the fault or the problem first, and treat the actual problem as if though it’s obvious that anybody would see it—it’s completely obvious—and dismiss it. Don’t make it into a big deal. Like, “We know this is an issue. Alright, what are we going to do about it?”

And it could be even a huge…you know, imagine like someone who just killed somebody. So that’s like another extreme example. Be like, “Okay, look, obviously we’ve got a problem. The guy’s dead. What are we going to do about it?” You treat it as obvious, dismiss it, and then it’s the implications of it. It’s what you do about it. Focus on the solution. Just dismissing the problem as obvious, “We know it’s there, let’s focus on the solution,” can take the pressure off and take that confrontational setting out, and you can make progress much faster.

So I hope this helps. Thanks for watching this video. My name is Patrick, reminding you as always to think bigger about your business, think bigger about your life.

Patrick Schwerdtfeger is a keynote speaker who has spoken at business conferences in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.