When it comes to challenging or confrontational conversations, is it really better to give than to receive? Having had the responsibility of delivering an awkward message as well as having received uncomfortable criticism, I am not sure which I dislike more.

As Southerners, we are bred to steer clear of unpleasantness. Most of us strive to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Yet, when difficult things have to be addressed, hurt feelings and sometimes anger or embarrassment are simply unavoidable. What’s more, the memory of an unpleasant communication will last much longer than it took to speak the message and may alter the relationship from that point forward.

Both mind and heart need to be engaged when you are tasked to deliver an unwelcome message, particularly if you desire to preserve the relationship, whether personal or professional. Compassion and a little planning will help assuage the angst and ill feelings such discussions can bring. Here are a few tips for your consideration:

  • Muster as much empathy as you can before the conversation by putting yourself in the listener’s shoes. How would you feel if you were the one receiving the message?
  • Make sure the setting for the conversation is private to avoid embarrassment.
  • While it is good to plan out the conversation, don’t get too scripted. An overly practiced dialogue runs the risk of sounding cold and unsympathetic.
  • Be direct and clear—gentle, but accurate. Choose words that make the point but leave room for some dignity.
  • Be empathetic and respectful. Manage your own emotions, making sure to avoid combative language and tone.
  • Allow room for a conversation and listen respectfully to the other person.
  • Make sure there is something positive communicated while being careful not to be overly positive. We know that one negative comment will be remembered over a dozen positive notes; however, too many positives can undo what you are trying to accomplish.

Now, if you are the one receiving the bad news or criticism, here’s some advice for you: stop, drop, and roll.

  • Stop before you say something you will regret. Avoid the temptation to respond emotionally and immediately.
  • Drop the tendency to replay the negative conversation over and over in your head. Keep your wits about you and the conversation in perspective.
  • Roll with the punches. Do your best and get on with your life. Bad things happen. People make mistakes. Employ a technique called “cognitive reframing” to highlight the positive sides of a challenging situation and identify a brighter side to the event. If the criticism is warranted, learn from your mistake so as not to repeat it.

I’m here if you need me. Until then, y’all behave.