bisccit - tips for difficult conversations

Difficult conversations made easy (well: easier)

All day long we interact with other people, at work, in a relationship, at home and on the road, intentionally and accidentally, deeply and superficially. Humans are social beings and we can get a lot of pleasure out of these contacts. But of course it doesn’t always go well. What do you do when something has happened that makes you feel uncomfortable or even angry or sad?

Instinctively we often opt for “Fight or Flight”: either we immediately blow up at the other person, or we withdraw and sulk in a corner.

Both reactions are very natural and nothing to be ashamed of, but the question is whether they help us further. First, it is not at all certain that the other person knows exactly what is going on. It is possible that your reaction is misunderstood or perhaps not noticed at all! Secondly, you have not given yourself and the other person the chance to take a good look at what happened and see if there is anything left to salvage. If we do it right, an unpleasant event CAN lead to you getting to know each other a little better and therefore getting along better than before.

Let’s look at something that happens a lot on the work floor. There is always this one colleague who dominates every meeting and who never lets you (or anyone else) finish their sentences or bring a point across. Very annoying. Everybody is grumbling about it, but nobody says anything. You have decided that enough is enough: You know you could probably silence him forever with one cutting remark, but that is not what you want, because you want to improve the work atmosphere, not make it  worse. So what can you say? And when? And how? 

 Choose time and place

The worst thing you can do is blow up during the meeting itself. Yes, it might feel satisfying for a while, and maybe your co workers will secretly applaud you, but in the long run a lot of damage will be done. Your colleague will lash back, or maybe retreat but hate you forever, or feel humiliated and sad. You will come across as unprofessional, or aggressive, or whiney. Possibly others in the company will feel the need to become involved and form teams “pro” and “con”. Always discuss difficult matters in a private setting, preferably when you have had the time to cool down. 

Keep your Emotional Bank Account in the plus

The most important work in conflict management actually takes place before anything goes wrong: building a foundation of trust and appreciation. Then when something goes wrong, you are more inclined to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s just like with a joint bank account: if you both make regular deposits into it, you can also withdraw something from time to time. And even if that is more than the other person actually expected, you don’t immediately reach the bottom. Ways to maintain the joint bank account are giving compliments, experiencing and naming positive experiences and being trustworthy. This is of course only possible if you already know each other. That is why many conflicts arise between people who do not (yet) know each other well. But also in long-term relationships, the emotional bank account is often neglected or too often (unilaterally) emptied and not replenished.

 Speak about yourself

Many quarrels start with: yes, but you…! People often feel that the other person’s behavior is the only reason why everything goes wrong. “If only they hadn’t acted so strange, nothing would have happened!” But we all know the proverb: “Where two fight, two are to blame.” and “When you point the finger at the other, three are pointing at yourself.” You also have a role in whatever happens. And because you don’t know what’s going on in the other person’s head, it’s best to speak from your own experience. You can then ask for their opinion.

Do not focus your comments on the person, but on behavior

Generalizing is never helpful, and if you combine it with a nasty remark denouncing the character of the other person, you can be sure that a solution is further away than ever. Comments such as: “You just never listen” or “You know yourself that you are not a talker”, make the other person powerless, because they cannot change their character. Behavior however, CAN (to a certain extent) be changed, so it is better to talk about that. 

Describe concrete Behavior

It must of course also be clear to the other person (and yourself) what exactly caused the conflict, so describe the behavior as concretely as possible. “You never let me finish” may say something about behavior, but what is the other person supposed to do with that? The response will probably be defensive and a bit nasty: “It seems to me that you’ve been talking for an hour and a half now” and that won’t get you anywhere. A concrete description preferably contains one specific event, or a series of related events, and not all the bad things that happened in the past year. So be as specific as possible. Don’t say: “You did not keep your appointment” but describe the behavior: “Your part of the report was not ready at the agreed time.”

Describe as specific as possible the effect of that behavior on you

Do not say: “When that happened I felt treated like a small child”, but state very specifically how this behavior affects you, how you experienced it and why you think that is bad and should be done be approached differently. For instance: “I am a professional, just like yourself, and when you did not give me a chance to explain my point of view, I did not feel treated as one.” 

Be genuinely curious

Of course, just because someone does something and you experience it in a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean they did something wrong. It could also be that you have interpreted it “wrong”, or that you just have different ways of saying or doing things. Only by asking open questions (who, what where, how) can you find out what was going on at that moment. Don’t ask “why” someone did something, because that is often perceived as a reproach. If you are genuinely curious about the background to an action, you can ask what the other person was planning or trying to achieve, or what he was thinking at the time. Often the answer will surprise you and it turns out that something completely different is going on than you thought. (and which has nothing to do with you). Maybe he was trying to impress the Boss.

 Don’t get stuck in the past

No matter what the reason was or how well it was explained by the other person, you did not like what happened and want to avoid the same thing happening again. Try not to dwell on what you found annoying, but say how you would like it to be different in the future. Also respect the wishes of the other person. Explore whether the (possibly different) goals you both have, can be achieved in a way that works for both of you. And keep in mind that things will probably go wrong again, despite all the good intentions. Discuss how to deal with this when it happens. 

Evaluate and adjust if necessary

If you never see, speak or need each other again, you can leave it at that and go your separate ways. But most of the time, people who try to resolve a conflict are connected in some way for the future as well. (Otherwise you won’t go to all that trouble.) Occasionally, preferably at a time when the emotional bank account is nice and full and nothing is wrong, discuss how things have gone with the difficult points lately. Do the chosen solutions work? If not, see if anything can be improved.

So, let’s go back to the situation at the top of the page, with the colleague who never lets you get a word in edgeways. Next time, try addressing it like this: 

Talk to him in a private setting. Say: “During the last meeting I noticed that you interrupted me, while I was still speaking. I found that very annoying. Not only did it prevent me from expressing my opinion, but I also felt that I was not being taken seriously. Do you remember that moment? What do you think was going on then?”  “What did you try to achieve at that time? What solution can we come up with for the future that works better for both of us?”
It may not be as satisfying as screaming: Oh, just shut up for once! But you will find that the conversation will go smoother and the chances of reaching an amicable solution will be greatly improved. ☺

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