How To Have a Tough Conversation Without Getting Mad

Sometimes we’re silent when we should speak up.

We see this human tendency in situations big and small… from the modern-day genocides many choose to ignore to the students who pass by a kid getting bullied without saying a word to intervene.

Sometimes we get angry without great reason.

We find ourselves yelling at the slow car prolonging our commute or berating the waiter who messed up our food order.

Most of the time, though, we’re in the middle.

We’re not fuming mad or unconfidently silent — not until a tough situation creeps up. Then, we tend to lean one way or the other.

When the stakes are high, opinions differ, and emotions flare, people usually move in one of two directions: silence or violence.

Silence and violence are two unhealthy ways to deal with tough issues. This doesn’t necessarily mean we literally go silent or punch people in the face — but it does mean that we either shut down or get angry. (Neither of which produces the results we actually want or need in the situation.)

If we want positive results from the conversations that matter most, we have to choose another way.

The Ideal Way To Talk

In an ideal world of effective communication, people share their experiences and opinions with each other, creating a pool of shared meaning.

Imagine we all carry a bucket filled the experiences, beliefs, and perspectives through which we filter the world. This bucket of meaning influences how we make decisions, interpret what others say, and navigate our lives.

When we’re in healthy dialogue, people contribute their meaning to the group willingly. As each member of the group shares, the pool of shared meaning grows — providing us with better information, generating more buy-in, and resulting in smarter decisions.

When we contribute to the pool of shared meaning AND listen to what others are contributing, great things happen.

The problem is that we often don’t. Instead, we resort to silence or violence.

What is Silence?

Silence is any action we take to withhold meaning from the pool. If I keep my bucket of meaning close to me and don’t empty it out (whether because I’m playing verbal games or avoiding an issue entirely), we call that silence.

Imagine a nurse who sees a surgeon about to perform the wrong operation on a patient and fails to speak up. (This happens far more often than you may think.)

What’s the cost?

Imagine an employee who knows perfectly well that the project he’s working on is destined for failure and doesn’t say anything to his supervisor.

What’s the cost?

We repeatedly see silence in the workplace and know that there are tremendous costs — not only in terms of the results we’re able to accomplish, but also in terms of the relationships at stake.

What is Violence?

On the other side of the spectrum, we see violent behavior. Anything I do to take my bucket of meaning and dump it all over you is considered violence. For many of us, we first think of violence as a physical action. We imagine someone getting punched.

Not long ago, I was traveling on a major airline during a weather delay. Flight after flight was cancelled.

As I spoke with the ticket agent, he shared with me that one of his colleagues was working with a particularly irate customer earlier that day. This customer got so worked up during the conversation, he actually punched the ticket agent in the face and knocked out three teeth.

We know conversations can escalate to physical violence. We even hear about people dying because of conversations that go awry.

Thankfully, for many of us, it never gets to that point. For most people on the job, violence is verbal.

We’ve all been in a conversation that makes us feel as though we were just punched in the gut. And on occasion, we’ve probably been guilty of crafting our words with the intent to injure someone else.

Words have power and can destroy a relationship as well as any punch.

The Other Way: Dialogue

Both silence and violence get in the way of accomplishing results. To get the results we need, we must focus on dialogue — not on winning, not on being right, not on avoiding conflict.

Effective conversations happen when we focus on finding the truth, strengthening relationships, and learning from each other.

Positive results don’t come from silence or violence. Positive results come from dialogue.

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