As we approach the holidays, many of us will face a difficult conversation with relatives, in-laws, or even our spouse. So what is it that makes a conversation difficult? How do we navigate in the midst of a difficult conversation so the relationship can stay afloat and not crash on impact? I’m glad you asked. Members of the Harvard Negotiation Project put their findings together and wrote a book called, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. While a newsletter only allows me to give you some highlights of their findings, I encourage you to read the book if you find the information I’m sharing informative.
The authors describe three types of difficult conversations:
The “What happened?” conversations. These are conversations where someone makes assumptions about what happened and are based on what we believe to be true, what intentions they believe the other person has, and tends to use blame. The hallmark of these conversations is people disagree, and while arguing feels natural, it’s not helpful. When people disagree, we often assume they are being selfish, controlling, naïve, or irrational so we try to break through by persistence, by educating them, or pretending it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately none of these tactics work because people typically do not change unless they feel heard.
The Feelings Conversations: Naturally strong feelings arise when we engage in a difficult conversation, so it isn’t about pretending we don’t have feelings, it’s what we do with them. Strong feelings make it hard to be rational and they can cloud judgment. It’s challenging to talk about feelings because it makes us feel more vulnerable, but not talking about them can make them fester, so finding ways to talk about them involves some skill. Here are a couple pointers about how to bring up feelings in a conversation: 1) Start by sorting out what you are feeling. 2) Negotiate with your feelings. What are you telling yourself that makes you feel like you do? Questions you may want to ask yourself: What might the other person’s story be? How does my view of their intentions affect how I feel? How might my actions have impacted them? Can I describe the other person’s contribution without blaming? and 3) Share your actual feelings, not judgments or attributions about the other person.
Identity Conversations: These conversations are about who we are and how we see ourselves. For example: If you ask for a raise, and your boss says no, even though you have the self-image you are a competent, respected employee, it can feel like your self-image is on the line. You could lose confidence, forget what you want to say, or feel paralyzed. There are three common identity themes: Am I competent?...Am I a good person?...Am I worthy of love? Grappling with these identity issues is what life and growth are all about. The truth about us is that we all make mistakes and admitting a mistake doesn’t make you weak or incompetent. Be honest with yourself that you won’t always have purely positive motives, because motivations are complex and multifaceted. Take responsibility for what you may have contributed to the problem. Do not define your identity on the basis of a difficult conversation.
Four things to do to help you maintain your balance before or during a difficult conversation:
1) Let go of trying to control their reaction. It’s understandable you don’t want to hurt them, but you have no power over their reaction, and it can be destructive to try.
2) Project yourself into your future, and reassure yourself you will eventually feel better. Imagine that you will learn from the experience.
3) Sometimes you may find you feel too overwhelmed or too close to the problem and you need time to untangle your thoughts. Ask to take a break to think about it, check for any distortions or gaps in your perception, and give yourself time to regain your balance rather than say things that may make it worse.
4) While you may be aware during the difficult conversation that you are struggling with an identity issue, sharing it explicitly in the conversation probably won’t move it forward. Recognize identity is something you need to work out on your own. Find the courage to ask for help.
Here are some liberating assumptions related to identity: It’s not all my responsibility to make things better… It is my responsibility to do my best… They have limitations too… They can’t change overnight... This conflict is not who I am… Letting go doesn’t mean I no longer care.
Speaking of getting help, remember Fountain Gate for all your counseling needs. You may even want to recommend it for someone with who you have difficult conversations with, but remember that too may be a difficult conversation.
Stone, D., Patton, B, & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York, NY: Penquin Group (USA) Inc.