Difficult relationships usually mean difficult conversations. Sometime focussing on enhancing the conversational dynamics can help the relationships be a little less difficult.
‘How dare they speak to me like that!’…is a thought that becomes a memory of a ‘bad feeling’, that becomes a fear that it may happen again, that becomes a mental and emotional obstacle, that almost ensures you will have a difficult conversation in the future!
It seems that some people breeze through life without any problem when speaking to anyone and everyone. They cruise through all kinds of interactions while being open and reasonable, an empathic listener and a calm speaker, with a warm personality and an acceptance of everyone – without having been anywhere near the Diplomatic Corp! While down at the other end of the conversational spectrum there are those who ‘go off’ like a box of fireworks in almost every encounter in which there is the slightest interpersonal sparkiness!
Most of us are probably somewhere in between. We are the ‘inbetweeners’ which means there are probably at least two or three people in our life with whom we just don’t like to talk. However, like Olympic Diving, there are usually ‘degrees of difficulty’ which, in the context of a conversation can range from slightly awkward to extremely difficult to almost impossible.
The three main factors that underpin a difficult conversation are usually context, history and expectation.
Context usually means a conversation around authority between manager and staff, or parent and child. These tend to be two ‘positions’ talking at each other as opposed to two ‘people’ talking with each other. Not a good start. And unless one of the two can transcend their ‘position consciousness’ and connect with the other as a human being, it’s likely to end badly, as many managers and parents will testify!
History usually means the conversation is going to be awkward and difficult today, because there was a previous encounter, which was not pleasant, and it’s still a fresh memory from yesterday. It’s not easy to meet the ‘the other’ with a clean slate every time, let alone any time! Some things are hard to forget, including some conversations. Especially if you see each other every day. But ‘clean slate’ is an ideal that is worth pursuing and a practice worth…practicing! Otherwise we bring our baggage to our difficult relationships. It weighs us down and it stifles and smothers the relationship, while making the conversation defensive, closed and cautious.
Expectation is either about what we want from the other or how we would like them to behave. Expectation is the cardinal sin and the most common mistake that we commit within our conversations. Expectation tends to be what quickly reduces a dialogue, where we are mutually exploring together, into a discussion, which is a just an exchange of different points of view, down into an argument about who is more right than the other. The expectation usually sounds like ‘I expect to be right on this’! Any conversation that kicks off from any expectation is almost bound to hit the rocks at some stage. But it’s not easy to enter any interaction without expectation, or at least without a ‘dependency’ on our expectation being fulfilled.
So here are eight suggested guidelines to drive, hazard and fog free, down the conversational road. Their usefulness and application, their emphasis and effectiveness, will vary depending on who exactly is in front of you, or the context of your exchange, or the history you share and your mutual expectations of one another. It’s these four underlying factors which ensure most relationships are, by definition, ‘messy’. And it’s in those difficult conversations that we usually make the most mess!
1 Remember your primary responsibility
After a lifetime of conditioning in which we learn to believe it’s ‘the other’ that makes you feel what you feel, and therefore think what you think, and do what you do, it’s not easy to remember …no it’s not them, it’s me! Most conversations will drive up to this illusion and either get stuck, as the habits of emotional reaction and blame kicks in, or both parties will give up and back away with a simmering, mutual resentment. A conversation between two self made victims seldom gets very far. Don’t wait for your post conversational personal reflections to realise that you reacted because you forgot to take responsibility for your own emotional state. Otherwise life becomes a series of very brief conversations!
2 Respect is the secret ingredient
Difficult conversations are usually with a) someone of whom we are scared, which means we are fearful of what they might say, or b) with someone that we have decided we simply don’t like. Any previous negative experiences (memories of suffering that you attributed to them) or any previous negative judgment will not allow you to give respect to the other. You won’t be able to affirm their innate worth and goodness as a human being. And any conversation that is without mutual respect to some degree or other is going to flounder as animosity flourishes fast.
If you cannot instantly rise above such memories/judgments, or put them to one side, try this interim measure to introduce respect from your side of the able. Find at least one or two positive qualities or attributes within ‘the other’ and see them as that during your interactions. It doesn’t’t need to be said, although you can say it, sometimes it helps. But primarily it’s your vision of them that transmits that you are ascribing value to something within them, however small. They will sense that you value them. This is sometimes enough to unblock your own ability to connect and communicate calmly and clearly, and it makes it easier for them to reciprocate by responding openly and proactively. But don’t depend on it happening instantly!
3 Resistance only leads to persistence so…stop it!
Once you have accepted that it’s you that is responsible for what you feel it’ll be easier to dissolve your resistance to them, even when you don’t agree with their idea and/or their opinion. Resistance kills our capacity to hear the other clearly and eats away at our ability to understand them. Misinterpreting and misunderstanding are the most common ingredients of a difficult conversation. All because of mutual resistance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you agree but it does mean any disagreement ceases to be an obstacle to your connection and communication. Who stops resisting first? The one who decides to be a leader!
4 Listen from your heart as well as your head
Listening from the heart can instantly soften a difficult conversation and remove most of the … difficulty! Instead of being concerned just with their facts and your feelings, you become equally interested in the feelings of the other. You are also ready and willing to share your own feelings when the moment is right. But in a way that isn’t just dumping all your emotions onto them. Listening from the heart is a skill, an art, that some people seem to have naturally while others take a lifetime to learn.
It can be difficult for many to say what they feel as opposed to what they think when many of us don’t know the difference between our thoughts and feelings, most of the time. Start to practice expressing your feelings in quiet and humble ways, on your own, in front of a mirror, or in the car, as you talk to your self (when you’re on your own of course!). Once you start listening and speaking from the heart you start to create a deeper connection with the other. That’s when all those ideas and opinions, memories and perceptions from the past, start to lose their power to make the conversation unpleasant.
5 Be like bendy toy
When entering into a difficult conversation there is usually something that we want or something we don’t want, which is also a want! This will always be a threat to your ability to stay calm, be flexible, to compromise, to roll with the others energy. This ‘wanting’ also diminishes your ability to understand the other and if there is one thing that is going to make a difficult conversation difficult it’s mutually rigid misunderstanding. But who is going to start being flexible…first? Who will offer the first compromise…first? Who will enquire and acknowledge how the other ‘feels’…first? Who will let go of their ‘position’…first? Who will bend with the breeze, a little…first?
6 Avoid presumption, assumption and consumption
It almost goes without saying that conversations work better when we presume nothing and assume nothing. Most of us know the consequences of presumption and assumption and the time and energy it can take to repair a relationship that has gone askew because of either. When you make an assumption or presumption you become ‘closed’ around your own conclusions about their motivation, intention and behaviour. Being open, even when you want to be closed around your assumptions, is an obvious imperative to a stress free exchange. Otherwise it just gets very tense for both parties. Even better is to genuinely care about the other. When you can care for and about the other you will do a lot of ‘asking’, which in turn will naturally reveal and dissolve your assumptions. Too much care however and you are likely to consume the others story and live their story as if it was your own, recreating their emotions as if it were your own.
7 Drop the past and pick up the future
This is both an obvious and well recognised principle of all conflict resolution and all effective communication strategies – don’t dwell in the past by continuously going over the past. Ask only once what happened and what, if anything, can we learn. Then, how do we go forward, how will we deal with the same situation/issue next time. Revisiting the past tends to generate emotional heat and the impulse to search for someone to project that heat onto. This is often why some conversations can easily descend into to an emotional flame-throwing contest.
8 Never ‘Dextify’
Watch out for the following symptoms from our old friend the ego! Defending, explaining and justifying – otherwise known as ‘dextifying’! Never do that. Never let them do you! As soon as you do you are saying, ‘I am on the defensive’ and the other will start to think they have power over you. And unless and until they realise it’s an illusory power, they will just try to keep it up.
It’s not easy to NOT jump into defending, justifying or explaining mode when challenged in any way. One thing that helps is to create the habit of asking before telling. By asking how they perceive or interpret the issue/situation/topic you give your self the opportunity and space to restore your inner coolness and openness. There is more likely to be a reciprocal response of, “Well what do you think, how do you see it?” In that moment all difficulty in the conversation tends to dissolve. You are chilled because you are no longer reactively ‘dextifying’. And they are open.
Conversations become difficult for different reasons. But the root cause always lies within us not them! It’s really just a statement to our self that we need to learn more about our self and why we are making things difficult in the first place. But it’s not easy to see that the other person is never the problem, regardless of what they say or do. But if we can say to our self, ‘now what is this person, this conversation, this scene we are both in, trying to teach me’, we may find that we can come away from the interaction with some moments of personal enlightenment and access to a deeper strength within our self. It’s just that we may have to do that in retrospect at first!
Question: Identify the two people in your life with whom you tend to have difficult in current exchanges.
Reflection: Which of the above strategies may help in each of those relationships?
Action: Consciously imagine using each strategy above and then actually practice using each strategy during this coming month.
by Mike George