Your boss has (unjustly) implied you've messed up. A friend has done something incredibly disrespectful. You and your spouse have been dancing around an awkward issue for months now.
Regardless of who and where you are, you're human, and that means you know the unique torture of procrastinating when it comes to broaching a difficult topic with someone. No matter how many times you decide "tomorrow" is the day, you just can't seem to make yourself have the conversation.
In fact, for many of us, the more important the subject is, the more we are likely to avoid it altogether. Studies show that the key reason we do this is because we fear the angry emotions that might be unleashed if we broach a tricky topic. It's a vicious cycle: if the situation is important enough to procrastinate over in the first place, chances are high that the issue is important and best not avoided.
If you find yourself ruminating about a situation long into the night (and at the traffic lights, and at work, and at the supermarket), you need a strategy for making the conversation happen.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
As the late Susan Jeffers, psychologist and author said in her famed book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, staying stuck (as opposed to taking action) is perhaps the worst thing of all when it comes to your mental well-being.
Any issue that matters will simply cause more discomfort if swept under the rug. The unresolved problem can escalate until it explodes in an unguarded moment - and this can have far reaching consequences.
Remember: we can't always negotiate our way through difficult encounters. If a breakup is on the cards, it will probably happen one way or another. But we can make a plan to call on our reserves of resilience and fortitude.
Think hard about what exactly the issue is, recognise that they may hold an entirely different view, and jot down the points you want to make so you don't end up rambling about a sensitive topic that deserves clarity.
A time and a place
This is self explanatory, but you'd be surprised how many of my clients end up having their most loaded conversations in the most unlikely of places (work functions, friends' birthdays) because the resentment simply simmers over.
Choose and stick to a time and place that is free from distractions and noise. A level playing field is ideal - so rather than your bully of a boss's office, suggest a coffee nearby, outside the office if that will make you feel braver.
Me, myself and I
It's an oldie but a goodie: use the pronoun "I" rather than "you". It helps neutralise accusatory sentences. Try also to focus on the problem rather than the person. In other words, keep it focused rather than launching into character assassination.
Look for solutions in what the other person is saying. Sometimes their reaction can help you see more clearly what needs to be done to solve the issue.
What if you're the one who's been approached?
Are you the one who's been asked to talk? Being caught unaware is a hard place to be, but there are steps you can take to regain some dignity and time before your reaction (defensive, probably, which is normal) betrays you.
• Breathe evenly, drop your shoulders, and consciously relax;
• Ask for clarification and specifics if you need to;
• Ask the person for some time to think and to reconvene after this period;
• Ask to be heard in response without interruption;
• Try to remember how a bruised ego can colour perception. Look for potential solutions as well as tending to your own sense of pride.
You cannot control others and how they choose to handle themselves
The well-known Serenity Prayer - authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr some 100-odd years ago - says it best: "Accept those things we cannot change, but have the courage to change the things we can".
In this instance, see it like this: You cannot control others and how they choose to handle themselves. You can, however, increase your self awareness and your sense of control over your own life. Strategies for doing just that will carry you far.