The most important conversations are often the most difficult. These conversations require a willingness to listen and understand the other person’s point of view. Strong relationships are often built on good communication, whether it’s with your boss, your family, your significant other, your friends, or your coworker.
But when emotions come into the mix, everything gets complicated. Your assumptions and anxieties sometimes get in the way of fixing a problem. Think back to a difficult conversation you’ve had that has stuck with you. What was it like? Were you nervous? Why were you nervous? Did it escalate or did you resolve it? Think now of a conversation that you’re putting off. Why are you doing this? Let’s run through some tips to review your past experiences and improve your future conversations.
Before you talk, think about why you are initiating the conversation. What do you hope to get out of the talk? Think about your ideal outcome and if your intentions are genuine. Going into the conversation with assumptions about the other person’s intentions could change your attitude and perspective towards the conversation. If your language is overly condescending or critical, you could end up pushing them away. If you find that the subject is emotionally charged for you, it’s ok to go into the conversation knowing your history and your fears as long as you acknowledge those fears instead of letting them escalate a conflict.
Ok. So you’ve thought through the conversation. Maybe you have a written list of what you want to say, maybe you’ve practiced the conversation in the mirror, or maybe you have no idea what you’re going to say. In whichever situation, go into the conversation ready to learn more about the other person’s point of view. If you go into the conversation ready to prove all the reasons you’re right, you will get nothing out of the conversation. Instead of listening to respond, Year On teaches fellows to listen to understand. A quote that really stuck with me from one of the worksheets was,
“Listening…involves a certain surrender, a willingness to sit with what one does not already know…Listening requires us to stretch a little beyond what we know, expect or want.” -Diana Senechal
Try to learn as much as possible from the person’s body language. If they suddenly cross their arms, that may mean that they feel attacked or are going on the defensive. It’s ok to acknowledge any tensions that are rising. It could even be as simple as, “hey I know that I may be getting defensive, and it could be because I really care about this and it feels like you’re dismissing me.” You can also let them know that you are listening by telling them you understand where they are coming from and get how this is affecting them. Be careful how you say things - you may intend something one way but if your tone says something different, then you won’t get your point across. This is why you should never initiate a difficult conversation over text messaging or the internet. If people can’t read your body language or your tone, they may misunderstand your entire point.
Usually, when the other person says something, they aren't trying to attack you or hurt you. Don’t take it personally. Instead, try and explain the situation to them without seeming condescending. Once you both can verbally explain the other person’s argument well enough, then you can start brainstorming ideas for solutions. Sometimes you won’t have to compromise if you realize that you both need things that can coexist. If I go to my boss and ask for a better compensation for my work but they have no more room in their budget to increase my salary, maybe I can ask for different bonuses like added vacation days, a later start time, a bigger bonus, or a promotion. If they are conflicting, find out where you share common ground and where you can agree first. Then work together by building a solution that works for everyone.
If you can show the other person you genuinely care about what they had to say and want to work towards a solution, they will be more willing to compromise. Finally, thank them for speaking with you and for having a productive conversation. Write down the compromise if you think that you will need to revisit it.
If you want more resources to refer to, check out this TED talk by LGBTQ advocate Tara Marcinik about the power of difficult conversations. She dives into the political polarization and if we can have civil and productive conversations about identity politics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjY56aFwQus.