3 elements to successfully navigating difficult conversations
Upon the birth of Boston, our first child, our house had enough nappies, wipes and jumpsuits to restock Big W. Add to this that Emily and I had completed the obligatory parenting course, purchased the top-of-the-wozza Emmaljunga pram and I was getting my Baby Bjorn flight-hours up by parading to the Wiggles with Big Ted strapped to my chest.
We were ready. Or so we thought… but then, as they say, “You don’t know what you don’t know".
Within weeks of being parents to B-man (as we still call him 16 years on), the tension between the two of us began to grow. Until that inglorious day when our relational strain would erupt with more surprise, force and torment than Boston's nappy-less meconium poo.
It was a mess of mammoth proportions.
The crescendo of this particular battle would result in Em roaring, “P*** off, I don’t want you in this house” to which I would respond, “Fine! I’m going to the church to write my f***ing sermon!” NB. I worked for a church at the time and it was becoming abundantly clear that homiletic finesse was not on the horizon for the approaching Sunday gathering.
I'm talking about the kind of conversation that guides us through the terrain of missed expectations and disappointmentwithout doing further damage; a conversation that preserves relationship instead of ruining it.
For a brief moment, we both internally lamented that marrying each other was the biggest mistake of our lives – apart from that bigger mistake of bringing a child into this situation.
The gift in this event, though, was in how it triggered an unexpected learning journey for us around the art of the difficult conversation. I'm talking about the kind of conversation that guides us through the terrain of missed expectations and disappointment without doing further damage; a conversation that preserves relationship instead of ruining it.
Where do you even begin with this kind of communication breakdown, especially when there is so much heat and hurt in the mix?
Uncover the concerns
German philosopher Martin Heidegger held the view that human beings are always taking care of what matters deeply to them; namely, their concerns. This is especially the case in the heat of conflict.
We can start putting the brakes on a spiralling conflict by asking questions for understanding the other person's concerns. These are questions like:
What is missing for you?
What key concerns are not being addressed?
What is important for you that is not being taken care of?
Make space for clarity
When we pause to think about it, we may be surprised by just how many assessments and assumptions are fuelling our reactions to a given situation or event. "They are thinking this..." or "They just want that..." or "They are so..." are just a few of a thousand assumptions that shape the stories we can run with in conflict.
To check whether your interpretations are grounded, follow up concern questions with some clarity questions:
My understanding of what you are saying is… Is that what you mean?
Walk me through your thinking on that please.
Are you referring to...
And one of my favourite ways of staying curious while holding back from giving a volcanic retort...
I am having a strong reaction to what you have said, could you help me understand further what you are saying?
Explore the issue more deeply and with sincerity
I would suggest that the art of the question, in a relationship that truly matters, comes down to deeper listening accompanied by genuine care. The best questioning cares for the other person, free from any intent to cleverly get our own way or have our point heard.... finally!
As we ask for clarity, there is still more listening that can be done. It comes through authentically asking questions like:
How do you feel about that?
How is that significant for you?
What do you need most from me? Can you help me understand why that is important?
A posture of openness
Of course, no formula or series of steps is going to 'fix' or prevent difficult conversations or disagreements from taking place. A framework like this though, and the questions that go with it, help to place us in a space of curiosity and entering difficult conversations with a posture of openness.
In our respective workplaces - as well as our homes - conversations like these help to open the pathway for trust to built, difficulties to be resolved and productiveness to be maintained.
Whether we are engaging with a client, a colleague or a loved one, intentionally embracing this kind of disposition will maximise care, minimise damage and result in far more positive outcomes for all involved.