“We don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.”
Steve Goodier, publisher of Your Life Support System
If you find having difficult conversations scary and uncomfortable, you are not alone. For most of us, difficult conversations represent danger, risk, and uncertainty. Allowing the unknown into our lives and conversations can challenge our identity, values, and needs. It is normal for this potential danger to set our nervous system into action. Here, I’ll present several tips for stepping into that upcoming difficult conversation.
Conflict and difficult conversations show up to teach us something that we do not know.
Stepping into a difficult conversation is an opportunity to learn something new or to recognize something that we have not yet considered. It’s a way to stretch and to grow, innovate products and services, and improve relationships. This learning mindset is the first step in deciding to have a difficult conversation. Curiosity is also important and helps by deepening our interest in learning what we do not know or expanding our knowledge on a topic.
This requires a mindset change from “I’m right and they are wrong” to “this is a learning opportunity.”
It’s also healthy to address (ask and answer the question) why some conversations are so difficult. The answer is clear: Difficult conversations are those that we need to have with others or that others need to have with us in which we or they perceive potential danger, conflict, or sensitivity. We are at odds with others or they are at odds with us. Naturally, the negative outcome of a difficult conversation can mean that our relationships, career, financial future, or political well-being, for instance, could be in danger. For many of us, avoidance can feel like the way out. This, however, is not a proper strategy because no matter how far we kick a problem down the road, it will, with certainty, continue to grow and fester until it is tackled. The key is to enter these conversations with skill and confidence instead of fear and trepidation.
Stepping into a difficult conversation requires courage, which helps us to keep going, especially when we want to give up or succumb to polarization. Courage is the grit and strength to take on something that promises to be challenging, dangerous, or difficult – but you do it anyhow.
One of my teachers along the way, Dr. Michael Klein, taught me that if we can have the courage to be curious about what we do not know about the other person’s perspective, we will always get closer to resolution and mutual understanding. As mentioned earlier, curiosity is about your interest in learning what you do not know or expanding your knowledge on a topic. When we are polarized by what someone is saying, we have two choices: We can react in anger to prove how we are right, or we can be curious and ask the person questions to learn more about his or her perspective, standpoint, and truth. And, if we can continue to be curious and to not react, even if we ultimately do not agree, we always gain a deeper understanding of the other person or situation. If we are curious long enough, the fight dissipates and a productive path forward appears.
Let me illustrate with a personal story.
Several years ago, shortly after attending Harvard Law School’s program on conflict and difficult conversations, my girlfriend/partner, at the time, and I were celebrating happy hour over a glass of wine. The topic of conversation was the possibility of moving in together at some point in the future. I noticed from spending time at both of our homes that I might not be as neat as she was. In the spirit of the conversation, I said, “I hope that my occasional lack of neatness is not too hard for you to live with.” I thought this to be a genuine concern to share and for us to talk about. She responded in a way I did not expect. It wasn’t necessarily what she said, but it was the tone of voice and the obvious anger behind it. I was perplexed. A part of me felt angry, very polarized, and misunderstood. I wanted to respond in turn with anger, as I felt I had been wronged and attacked. The part of me that wanted to go into the fight was significant. In the moment I remembered this tool of curiosity and I decided to address her discomfort and ask questions about what was going on for her when I made my statement. I asked her in a calm way, and she was able to share that obsessive-compulsiveness runs in her family, and that she’s always been concerned about her own tendencies, and that my comment had triggered her. Suddenly, my anger and upset faded away and I understood where she was coming from. If I had gone into the fight, I never would have learned her perspective and the discussion would have unraveled into more conflict. This was a huge life learning experience as I began to understand the role of curiosity and learning when experiencing conflict. I don’t share this story to give myself props, as there are many examples of when I’ve been unable to do this skillfully and many examples of what does not work. To this day, however, this story stands out as a reminder of how being curious and looking for the learning opportunity can dismantle conflict and bring me closer to mutual resolution and connection.
It’s natural to feel opposed to or polarized from people who have different opinions than we do. When you are noticing that you feel this way, here are three questions to ask yourself:
1. Am I open to learning something new?
2. What is it that I don’t know about the other person’s story?
3. What can I learn if I am not attached to being right?
Want to learn more about having productive conversations? I share three critical steps required before having a difficult conversation in my free training “How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations”. I’ll explain how to set your intention, remove judgments that can impact the outcome and how to make sure you are defining the problem correctly. Register here – https://evokeleadership.com/how-to-prepare-for-a-difficult-conversation/
Wishing you productive conversations.
E.E. Cummings wrote,
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”