Warning: Difficult Conversations Are Hard. Improve Them Now.

Most people don’t look forward to crucial conversations. And they definitely don’t get excited about them.

When we know it’s time to have a crucial conversation, most of us tense up rather than jump up at the chance to get started. Our emotions can get the better of us and undermine the reason we’re having the conversation in the first place.

That’s because there’s a lot that can happen in a crucial conversation. It can ruin relationships. It can make things awkward. And when we’re uncomfortable, we tend to move to silence or violence.

With silence, we stop talking, we stop listening, we fidget with our phones, and we shut down. In a move to violence, we become aggressive as we self-justify, interrupt, raise our voice, and get frustrated.

So what do we do about it?

Learn to Look

Our conversations get less awkward and more productive when we learn a vital skill — awareness that these things are happening. The move to silence and violence affects everything about the conversation, including the outcome. So, we need to learn to see the signs of these ill responses so we can keep conversations on course.

It’s easy to miss the signs if you’re not looking.

I’m guilty of it too — and I’ve paid the cost. I’ve missed queues in myself when I’ve moved to silence or aggression, and I’ve missed them in others. Instead of seeing what’s happening with the other person, I’ve pushed through at full speed not realising a conversation was no longer effective.

One of these conversations was with my dad.

When Temperatures Rise

My dad owns a hospitality business in Sydney, Australia. He’s been having some challenges with a new manager. He’s been frustrated, stressed, and resentful. He wanted to talk about it, but I live in Los Angeles (8,000 miles away!). When we get to talk, I want quality conversations. But over the past few months, 90% of our conversations were about this situation. And the stress was affecting us both.

Inevitably, after we got past the “How are you?”s, I’d ask about the problem. He’d talk louder and more energetically. And the temperatures would begin to rise. So, I’d interject with questions of, “Have you tried…?,” but he’d keep escalating.

What was the problem? I gave myself permission to be his consultant. Unbeknownst to him, I was trying to solve his problem. And consequently, we ruined months of conversations. Maybe he just needed me to listen. He was feeling unsafe, so he increased his volume, energy, and frustration, but I didn’t see it. I kept pushing, and his temperature kept rising.

Until I figured out what to change…

Through these few months of going back and forth, I finally learned I needed a strategy to know what’s happening in conversations.

The Queueing Mechanism

As we learn to look for silence and violence, we need a way to let the person know what’s going on. Now, I pay attention to the nuances of conversations. With my dad, I listen for his breathing, word choice, energy, and how much he’s repeating himself. When his temperature starts to rise, I give him his queue, “Dad, you’re getting excited.”

With these words, he steps away from the content and pays attention to how he’s talking. Then, we can regroup.

But, the queueing mechanism has to work for the other person too. If my husband tells me, “Take a breath,” I don’t respond well. But if he says, “I can see you’re upset. This must be hard,” I respond differently. I know it’s time to take myself out of the content.

Once we realise how we’re acting and rethink our responses, we can go back into dialogue and continue a healthy conversation.

Check the Temperature

Crucial conversations tend to be uncomfortable and difficult, but we can make them better if we check the temperature of the conversation. Learn to look for signs of silence and violence early in a crucial conversation — and stay aware until the end.

Wouldn’t life be a little easier at home if we paid more attention to the signs that our conversations have turned crucial?

How would our work environment change if we noticed when honesty and respect leave the conversation

We need to check the temperature throughout these difficult talks, so we know when to bring life back into conversations. Then, we can have real dialogue for the purpose we intended.

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