Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How to have a difficult conversation

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Adar Cohen holds a PhD in conflict resolution from Trinity College Dublin and has lectured at Harvard University and the University of Chicago. He “helps families, businesses, and communities have big conversations,” and he writes in Psyche:

Need to know

I’m in a Zoom meeting, speaking to a screen full of black squares, trying to coax voices out of the void. The other callers are all members of an executive board, and they’re in turmoil over the strategic direction of their company. Several of them are no longer on speaking terms, and employees and shareholders have not been shielded from the drama. On a good day, these calls are tense, but more often than not they’re explosive. Only my camera is turned on, and I watch myself try to look optimistic.

I’m a mediator. I have helped people have difficult conversations for more than 20 years: in conflict zones and in living rooms, with leaders of corporations and foundations, and people in my own community. If you’ve ever avoided or postponed a difficult conversation, you’re not alone. Conflict avoidance is everywhere. At home and at work, we steer around conflict as prodigiously as we create it.

And yet conflict isn’t inherently bad. It offers us information about how we could work with others more effectively, improve our relationships, and grow as individuals. It’s far worse to try to avoid it, because you just end up creating new conflict – which ends up being more insidious and costly than the original issue.

When I help people have difficult conversations, we’re always aiming for one of three outcomes: a solution, a plan or an understanding. A solution is a grand bargain, a resounding win, a comprehensive resolution expected to withstand the pressures of all unknown future challenges. With a mediator this can happen, but it’s ambitious. We all have a tendency to hope for a dramatic and permanent solution, but this usually causes new problems by overburdening an already stressed relationship. A plan is more realistic, and is like a map for finding a solution. It leaves the precise terms of the resolution open-ended but provides a path forward. A plan reorganises the relationship with new boundaries, revised norms, and sets up shared expectations for how the trickiest parts will be navigated.

But the most realistic outcome, especially at the beginning, is to focus on reaching an understanding. An understanding is a new awareness of what the other person has experienced in the conflict; it’s a mutual appreciation for one another’s needs, fears and hopes. Reaching an understanding is feasible, provides great relief, and can lay a foundation for a plan, a solution and a new relationship.

For example, I recently helped a family to reach an understanding when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a college student to move back in with his parents. They were having difficulties renegotiating their relationships once they were suddenly living together again. Their renewed understanding led to a plan for new expectations and boundaries, which they’re currently using to navigate the uncertainties and discomfort of this period. I expect they’ll find their solution soon.

In my work as a mediator, I’ve learnt that successful conversations always involve what I call a ‘gem statement’. When two parties have listened long and hard to each other – have made the heroic effort to listen curiously and empathically even when they disagree strenuously – someone eventually unearths a glowing, priceless gem. It usually takes the form of a short, powerful statement, such as these two I’ve heard recently:

We’ve kept on fighting in part because neither of us is willing to walk away from this friendship. That’s something.

Even when we can’t agree on Dad’s medical care, I’ve never doubted your good intentions. I know you want the best for him.

It happens almost every time. From the muck of blame and anger, someone lifts out a beacon. I then seize the opportunity and hold up the gleaming gem for all parties to see. It lights the way toward a new conversation revolving around compromise, solutions and goodwill.

In addition to gratitude for the person who dug out the gem, I have also felt impatience. I’ve wondered, Why can’t they say something like this earlier in the process? Or better yet, at the beginning? Does the conversation need to naturally find its way to such a moment, or could we engineer it to happen much sooner? It seemed worthwhile to find out, so I developed a process to reduce the amount of time people spend digging in the muck. And I’ve found it works: when people find a gem earlier on, they experience less pain and more benefit from having their difficult conversation.

This Guide is to help you do this – without a mediator. Mediators can be helpful during challenging times, but we don’t actually resolve peoples’ conflicts. We create the conditions in which people feel heard and acknowledged, increasing the quality of their communication and problem-solving. When you’re facing a tough conversation, it’s not really the mediator you need – it’s the conditions we’re good at creating and maintaining. [Like a person who buys a drill doesn’t really need a drill — he needs to have holes in something. – LG]

If you don’t feel safe or if your situation involves illegal activity or any type of abuse, this Guide isn’t right for you. In those instances, get help from a professional right away. There are also some situations that don’t call for further conversation – some relationships or difficulties are better left in the past, and you should trust your instinct about whether a conversation is the right step for you. But if you think talking could do some good, then this resource can help get you started.

Maybe you feel misunderstood or unappreciated at work. Or maybe you’re caught in a recurring family pattern that causes pain and drives you away from the people you love. If you feel hurt or angry when thinking of a difficult conversation you need to have, there is a good chance that the relationship is important to you. Whether it’s a relationship within your family, at work or in your community, it’s become this challenging because you have a vested interest, you care deeply or your future is somehow intertwined with the person you need to talk with.

If you feel the situation could improve if someone really heard what you have to say, there’s hope. If you feel ready to make an earnest effort to really hear someone in return, there’s even more than hope. Remember that your goal here is not to find a quick solution or plan straight away – that’s tempting but unrealistic, and might backfire. Your goal is to understand each other.

What to do

1. Prepare for the conversation

The first step is a thought experiment: think about the person with whom you need to talk, and allow yourself to imagine that you just finished having the best possible conversation with them. You were heard fully. Each of your concerns was addressed to your satisfaction. If an apology was appropriate, you received an excellent one. Stay with this – just imagine it! You’ve reached an understanding that gives you confidence in the future of the relationship. This is a challenging thought experiment, but you’re almost there… You are relieved, you feel lighter, and even grateful to the person you’ve been in conflict with.

2. Dig out a gem

What would you say to them in this moment? (Remember, in this exercise you’ve been heard, you’ve received an apology, and it went exceedingly well.) What would you say to your counterpart if all of that happened? What’s ‘underneath’ the conflict? What’s true when you’re not consumed with negative feelings? Write down the first gem statement you think of. You can write others too, but usually the first one is the real deal.

Your statement should be an authentic expression of how you’re feeling, but should also have significant meaning and positive impact for the other person. For example, two more gem statements I heard recently were: ‘I can tell you care a lot about reaching our team’s goals, and I have a lot of respect for you.’ You can tell it’s a gem when you’re terribly tempted to tack on a grievance to the end of it. Like this: I can tell you care a lot about reaching our team’s goals, but the way you go about it is causing great difficulty to everyone around you. If you find yourself doing this, leave out the second part. You’ll get to say it, just not here.

3. . .

Continue reading. And do read the whole thing. Much excellent advice and some good suggestions for further reading. And of those by all means read this short but wonderful piece by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Written by Leisureguy

14 August 2021 at 10:33 am

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