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Four Tips for Difficult Conversations

Four Tips for Difficult Conversations

“Do you think she needs counseling?”

That was the abrupt beginning to a hard conversation with a friend last night.

Earlier in the day, my daughter had melted down in front of her. My son was invited to swim and my daughter was not, and sobbing ensued.

My friend was so distraught by my eight-year-old’s behavior that she had to leave the room. And hours later, this was how she chose to start a difficult conversation.

I immediately bristled. Not because needing counseling is something bad. And not because I think my daughter’s overreaction was perfectly appropriate. But because of the way the conversation began.

And it developed in an equally problematic way: My friend moved on to tell me that this was not the way other eight-year-olds behaved, that I should have disciplined her more severely when she was younger, and that my daughter had hurt her feelings by behaving that way.

As I reflect, I’m wondering what went so wrong. If my friend was actually concerned about my daughter, I didn’t feel it. If she loved my daughter and wanted what was best for her, it didn’t come across. If she was on my side, eager to help me parent well, that was not evident either. Instead, I felt judged and heard her words as an accusation against both my daughter and my parenting.

So, what could my friend have done differently? How might we have had a similar conversation in a way that I could receive it and hear her concerns?

As I approach difficult conversations in my own life, whether they are about work, parenting, friendships, church affairs, or something else, how might I communicate in a way that others can hear and that can open up space for a fruitful conversation?

1) Start with affirmation. No matter how hard the conversation and how big the conflict, it’s helpful to start with affirmation. Whenever I need to offer editorial critique to authors, I begin by affirming what they have done well. When I want to offer constructive feedback to leaders at work, I try to praise what is working already.

Does this seem manipulative? By offering praise first, I’m not making up things to affirm. I’m not trying to deceive my listener either. I’m recognizing that there are almost always things to praise and it’s easier to hear criticism if you also hear that you (or your work or your behavior) is not merely negative.

Consider how the conversation might have gone with my friend if she had started with her appreciation for my daughter’s spunk and spirit instead of with the suggestion that she was in need of professional help.

2) Stay curious. Try to avoid assuming you know why something unpleasant is happening. Instead, ask questions. Jumping to conclusions cuts out space for understanding the one you’re talking with and often leads to misinterpretation and hurt.

Though I am normally a big question-asker, I need remember to practice this one as well. Just recently at work, I was irritated that a certain meeting seemed regularly to be taking longer than I thought it needed to. Instead of asking questions of the convener, I assumed I knew the problem and offered up a solution. My own “do you think she needs counseling?” was “do you think if you sat in a different spot in the room you could read the room better?”

But the problem was not seat placement. Instead the convener was intentionally waiting to hear from the more reticent people in the room. And I could have discovered that by asking more questions.

What if, after affirming my daughter, my friend had started asking questions? “Does it bother you when she sobs like that? Does it happen often? What do you think is going on? Do you see others her age acting like that? Are you concerned?”

3)  Be willing to change your mind. I often come to difficult conversations fully convinced that I’m right and the other person is wrong. But life isn’t always that simple. And there’s often more nuance to be found. As you ask questions and gain more insight, it may be that you’re wrong (like I was in my idea about shortening the meeting). Often there are competing values involved, not just a moral right or wrong.

Another way of saying “be willing to be wrong” is: Approach the conversation with humility. There could be many goals for your difficult conversation but often they include understanding and conflict resolution. And that might mean changing your mind, apologizing, or offering forgiveness (or all three!).

We all come to circumstances with different expectations and our unmet expectations can lead to conflict. My own expectations of typical eight-year-old behavior were different than my friend’s. My interpretation of the severity of the situation, along with the causes and solutions, was also different.

Because of the shape of the conversation, I wasn’t really open to changing my mind. (And I don’t think my friend was either.) But how might I have been open to hearing what was behind the accusation? I think my friend was hurt that my daughter was upset when she was there to visit. I don’t think she should take that personally, but I also know that it’s easy for me to get feelings tangled up in the behavior of others, even when it’s not about me. I need to be willing to see through her eyes, even when I disagree. It’s ok to disagree, but it’s helpful to try to understand first.

4) Know when to let it go. There are some things that should not just be let go. I do not believe that all conflicts or difficult situations are those that we ought to just forgive and forget, moving along as if nothing happened. Actions have consequences, and sin has effects.

But sometimes we do have to let things go, even if we haven’t resolved everything. Once we’ve offered affirmation, asked questions, tried to understand the other’s viewpoint and expectations, and even changed our minds about some things, it might not be worth expending more energy on the issue.

I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule here, and some people find this easier to do than others. But sometimes talking more just doesn’t help. In that case, sometimes I have to let things go. And I think that’s what I need to do with my friend. She probably meant well, even though I don’t think she communicated that. And she came across as accusatory, but I don’t have to take her accusations to heart.

I mess up in similar ways, though it’s always easier to notice when someone else does it. As I think about what might have helped us have a more loving and productive conversation, I am reminding myself of communication tools I know make a difference. I hope the next time you have a difficult conversation with whomever it may be that these tips will help.

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Anna Moseley Gissing

Anna Moseley Gissing is Associate Academic Editor of InterVarsity Press. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and her writing has been published in Let us Keep the Feast and Not Alone: A Literary and Spiritual Companion for Those Confronted with Infertility and Miscarriage. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two kids, and she aspires to more reading, more writing, and more patience.

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