Approaching difficult conversations can provoke feelings of uneasiness. Something is unresolved and needs to be addressed, remains uncertain.
Uncertainty is an emotional state that we are not comfortable with. Look at where we are today with Covid — 19 and the stress of not knowing what comes next. With uncertainty, our natural inclination might be to approach a difficult conversation with pre-emptive defensiveness or the belief that we are right in an effort to create a story of certainty and stability, and perhaps also preserve our egos.
But what if we could reframe the conversation as a need for connection, closeness, and deeper understanding of the situation instead of the need to be right? Oftentimes we need to share our perspective, clear the air, or let someone know how we feel in order to engage in our relationships with greater authenticity and richness, or to allow boundaries to be set in place. As someone who is constantly in a state of curiosity over human motivations I have to ask myself when approaching a difficult conversation what the purpose is? If it’s for a different, more positive narrative, it’s a green light, bearing in mind that you can’t reason with unreasonable people, a favourite saying in our household.
So how can you decide which conversations are worth the risk and which ones to leave behind and further, how can you prepare?
Ask yourself the below questions to understand your own motivations before getting curious about the motivations of others.
What is the purpose or goal of this conversation?
What is my ideal outcome? What are my wants and needs?
What am I feeling about this situation as a whole?
What part of the conflict or issue am I responsible for?
Is there anything from my past being triggered by the current issue? If so, what?
What assumptions do I have about the other person’s intentions or perspective? What might they be thinking and feeling?
How am I feeling about having this conversation? How might the other person be feeling?
Prepare yourself to call upon your inner calm and grounding. Breathing techniques and the ability to step back will help you avoid what I call High Horse Defensiveness — the need to be right and placing yourself as an authority of the topics and discussion at hand in order to validate your views only. You can be sure this is happening if your fingers are flying over the keys of your laptop of cell phone and you’re barely breathing while doing so.
Set a Time and Place
If you respect the people and issues at hand, you’ll make time to see them in person. Studies suggest that having a conversation face to face will elicit a more trusting bond and you’ll be more likely to land on some mutual ground. Talking face to face gives both of you the opportunity to truly express what both of you are feeling and you’ll have the ability to see body language, expression and understanding on a deeper level.
“I’d like to talk to you about ______ and am wondering if you have time on Tuesday evening for us to sit down together.”
The ABC’s of Raising the Issue
This is the part many people often struggle with the most because raising a concern entails direct communication, emotional vulnerability, and the potential for conflict. Approaching a situation where you may not know the outcome is brave, even if it goes sideways.
Consider the following strategies as you broach the subject you’ll be discussing:
Approach the other person with curiosity, openness, and a collaborative mindset. This is something my partner and I aim for. We’ve decided instead of making assumptions of behaviour or trying to understand on our own we say “but first, curiosity”.
“Hey, I’m wondering why you didn’t want to go cycling with me today when as of yesterday you did? The story I’m making up is that you’re not interested in it any longer and we spent the money on gear and equipment”
Be clear and use specific examples while avoiding blaming or using accusatory language. State what you notice and try not to use absolutes like “always” and “never” as you give examples.
Communicate from the place of feeling. Try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging the difference between intention and impact: “I felt _____ when you _____. It’s likely this wasn’t your intention, however this was the impact on me and I wanted to let you know so we could clear the air. Was this your intention?”
Seek to Understand and Collaborate
Consider the following tips for working towards mutual understanding, respect, and resolution:
- Really make time and space for the other person’s perspective and listen without interrupting.
- Acknowledge their experience. This is different than agreeing with them. Show that you understand what they’re saying: “It’s important for me to really get where you’re coming from, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye.”
- Own your role in the conflict, even if it’s small: “When you said _____ I felt hurt and could tell I became defensive so I don’t think I was entirely open to what you were saying. I’ll try to be more open in the future and let you know how I feel in the moment.”
- Redirect the conversation back to the issue at hand.
- If the conversation gets heated, it’s okay to set boundaries by agreeing to revisit the issue with cooler heads: “I’m not comfortable with the direction this conversation is going and think it’s hard for us to have a productive dialogue while we’re both so upset. Let’s revisit this later.”
Start by asking for the other person’s ideas: “I think we have a solid understanding of where we differ. Based on what we discussed, what are your thoughts are on how we can move forward and work through this issue together to reach a more positive narrative and understanding?”
Wrap It Up
Recap what you’ve discussed, including solutions you’ve come to and areas where you may have agreed to disagree.
Express your appreciation for taking the time to discuss something that’s important to you, and share how doing so has impacted you: “I’m really glad we took the time to discuss this today. Even though we agreed to disagree on some things I feel like we each better understand where the other is coming from. This gives me hope that we can continue to discuss difficult things in the future so they don’t negatively impact our relationship.”
For especially difficult topics or if a conversation did not go as you hoped, it will be important to enlist the help of your support system. Reach out and debrief with a trusted friend or your partner. Again, practice self-care strategies and give yourself time and space to tend for yourself as you process and integrate this experience. You may have to do an emotional self check and start connecting some dots. Remain curious in the debrief stage: “why did I explode like that? why did that trigger me?” there could be some underlying or unresolved issues that require your love, care and attention.
The Flip Side of the Coin
Sometimes people approach us with difficult topics and we find ourselves having negative reactions to being confronted. We may become nervous, defensive, or rigid in our thought process, and may sometimes find ourselves triggered by past challenges. The above strategies will help you remain calm and centred instead of pulling that emotional spill trigger.
Until next time,
**with help from Carolyn Versical of Bergan Counselling**