"When under attack, our heart can take a similarly sudden and unconscious turn. When faced with pressure and strong opinions, we often stop worrying about the goal of adding to the pool of meaning and start looking for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace."
Perhaps you've heard that we're in a presidential election season. Perhaps you've heard little else for the past several weeks or months. Even for those of us not living in "battleground states" (those poor people), we're inundated with political ads for everything from president to dog catcher. Often the tone sounds more like road rage than a reasonable debate or discussion among responsible parties.
Sometimes those angry voices find their way into our personal relationships when we find ourselves at odds with friends or family members. Then what? The most frequent responses are versions of fight or flight. We either fall into arguments on one end of the spectrum or avoidance at the other end. Think about your own relationships for a minute. How do you engage in difficult conversations? Maybe the subject is politics or some controversial social issue. Maybe it's something personal between the two of you. What do you do? Fight or flee? Argue or avoid?
Thankfully, the presidential election will soon be over. But that won't bring the end of difficult conversations. Whether it's about politics, some controversial social issue, or something just between you and one other person, difficult conversations are still going to happen. The book Crucial Conversations describes them as conversations where, "the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong." The authors go on to say that we have three options when it comes to these conversations. 1. We can avoid them. 2. We can face them and handle them poorly. 3. We can face them and handle them well.
Most of us are quite experienced and skilled at the first two options. But if you'd like to try the third option, here are a few strategies I think are helpful. Try some of them the next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation. I'll call them Seven Ways to Have a Difficult Conversation.
Listen to understand before trying to be understood. This comes from Steven Covey in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. It's been around long enough to be a classic and the advice is still relevant and helpful.
Restate for clarity. This builds on the idea above. You can't honestly disagree with someone until you can state their position with sufficient clarity and accuracy that they say, "Yes, that's exactly what I believe." Restate for clarity to make sure you understand them.
Find what you have in common. Call me naive but I think many people who identify as being on opposite ends of the political spectrum have more in common than they realize, especially when it comes to important goals.
Value the relationship. Is your point of view more important than the relationship? The answer to that question will usually be "no." It's possible to hold different opinions on important issues without sacrificing your friendship.
Understand the difference between persuasion and coercion. There's nothing wrong with stating your belief and trying to persuade other people to agree with you. However, you should draw the line at coercion. Commit that you will not descend into name calling, intimidation, or giving the silent treatment in your effort to win them over to your point of view.
Be respectful. Mockery and ridicule can be emotionally satisfying, especially when we can't think of anything better to say but neither of them are legitimate responses. You don't have to give up your sense of humor. In fact, a good sense of humor will likely help you get through most difficult conversations.
Take a break. Sometimes the best response is no response, at least for a while. Change the subject or the scenery when you reach an impasse. Calm down and try again another time.
What would you add to the list? I'd love to hear your suggestions. And, if you decide to try the third way of handling a difficult conversation, let me know how it goes.