A conversation becomes difficult when it triggers a set of unpleasant feelings in us. Think about some of your past difficult conversations about something that someone did or didn’t. The facts themselves (actions, behaviours etc.), taken out of context, are meaningless. It is how they make us feel that shifts the situation from normal to difficult. Is it a colleague who failed to send that client report on time? Is it your boss who somehow doesn’t seem to listen to what you have to say? Or is it a neighbour that just doesn’t ever clean up after his dog? Or maybe you found a pack of cigarettes in your daughter’s jacket pocket?
The only thing that ties all the above together is how they make us feel. And so they become difficult for us. It’s not about the client report in itself, it’s about feeling disrespected, or disappointed. It’s not about the boss, but about feeling alone, or disillusioned, or helpless. The dog and neighbour are fine, it’s just that you feel disgusted, or maybe angry that the front street is filthy with dog droppings. And what about the cigarettes? What feelings would you imagine then? Is it anger, or disappointment? Or maybe pure fear at the what seems as inevitable diagnosis?
It’s more complicated than we may think
This article is about difficult conversations and the conflicts that arise from them. I strongly believe that if a conversation is difficult, focusing strictly on solving it is an unhealthy goal, because human beings are involved. We are complicated, messy and, sometimes, highly irrational and we’re rarely aware of it. Which leaves us with an option that is far better, when engaging in difficult conversations: instead of trying to solve, we may try to understand. Once we understand how the other person sees things, and they understand how we do, then we can move forward to a possible solution.
Another strong belief of mine is that if a conversation is difficult for you, you have contributed to it, one way or another. No doubt about it. This is, actually, one of the most common reasons why they escalate into conflicts – we think the other person is at fault and that we had little or nothing to do with it. Here are four common hard-to-spot ways in which we contribute to the difficult situations in our lives:
- Avoiding until now
This is the most common one – you have allowed it to continue until now and haven’t done anything about it. You have an employee with ongoing performance or behaviour issues and his performance history is full of Satisfactory ratings. You’re constantly hiding your real thoughts from that neighbour. Your boss just doesn’t have time, you say to yourself. You believe that it’s just a phase with your daughter, in which she needs to feel accepted in her group and that it will pass.
- Being unapproachable
People don’t come to you to discuss problems, because your style is keeping them at bay. You contribute by being short-tempered, uninterested and judgemental. Bad systems are alive and well around you, because those who discover them and might be able to solve them are afraid to approach you. Just like that colleague, who might need some help from you with the report.
This is about differences. When our differences intersect, it’s best to understand them, rather than placing blame or looking for right and wrong, or just waiting for them to change. They won’t. You see things in a way, your colleague/neighbour/daughter sees them differently. They are not automatically wrong and they will not “see things your way” soon, all by themselves.
- Problematic role assumptions
This is about when people find it hard to change how things work now, despite seeing the limitations: leaders do strategy, not me. I implement them, no comment. I’m the boss, I say what is right and wrong. I’m the father/mother, I decide what’s good and bad.
I trust that, by now, you have an idea about your own contribution to your difficult conversations. This is very important, because when we realise that it’s not just their fault, we become truly open to understanding more about how we (people involved in the situation) have allowed things to become difficult. In time, you will build a stronger awareness of circumstances that have the potential to become difficult if you don’t tackle them on time and with wisdom.
For further reading on the subject, please consider this book.