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The Dynamics of Difficult Conversations

The average British person has 27 conversations every day, lasting an average of 10 minutes each. That adds up to a massive 4.5 hours a day or 68 days – every year. We mostly enter these conversations automatically, without forethought or reflection. However, there are some conversations we do notice. We can spend hours, days or even weeks worrying about what to say and then when they are over, dwell on what we should have said and wish we had never had them or at best done them differently. These are our difficult conversations. They usually contain a dizzying cocktail of high stakes, differing opinions, historical baggage and strong emotions.

Conversational dynamics

Our challenge is that human interaction is not predictable. In many ways it is more like a game of snakes and ladders – full of ups, downs and hidden pitfalls. The issues being discussed can be complex and you can never be 100% sure how you or the other person will react. In the blink of an eye you land on a verbal snake and the conversation can plummet into free fall.  Equally, there will also be times when your dialogue creates a moment of joint understanding or resolves an impasse and together you accelerate up a ladder to a successful outcome.

Three conversations not one

As well as the physical exchange of words, during these conversations each person in the dialogue is also having a private conversation with themselves. Often this inner dialogue is not shared, but it shapes and creates everything that is said out loud. If you were to place it under a metaphorical microscope you would see the building blocks of a challenging conversation, including tonality, defensiveness, judgements, perceptions, hurt, resentfulness, blame, disinterest and personal values, to name but a few.

Simply being aware of this dynamic can enable you to gain a new perspective. When someone says “This is all your fault” it makes all the difference if you choose to remain curious about the way the other person sees the situation, rather that needing to defend or fight back immediately. You can see; “OK, they are choosing to blame me” rather than being hijacked by an automatic inner reaction of, “How dare they blame me? What about when they did/didn’t, should/shouldn’t have…” and the battle begins.

Tap into the inner dialogue

The key to a successful conversation is tapping into the thoughts and feelings that are silently influencing what is spoken, both by you and by the people you talk with.

  • Ask yourself what feelings, previous experience, baggage or background information you are carrying that could affect how the conversation goes. Then step into the other person’s shoes, think how the situation you want to discuss may look from their point of view and ask the same questions. What previous experiences or feelings could they be carrying about you?
  • Am I wrong? Ask yourself if the collection of thoughts that you have about the situation are balanced and fair? If a lawyer were examining your evidence are there parts of it that could be assumption, bias or needing further clarification? Have you actually created a story to fit what you want to be true? Which if examined is not based in fact? …We all do it!
  • Be curious, more than listening, hear and be fully open to what they say. Whatever the other person believes, MAY be right, they may have seen something you have not, and that information could be critical. Put ego to one side; don’t let your need to be proved right override your need to get the best solution. Being open minded and curious to the other’s perspective will allow you to see the whole picture.

Getting all the relevant information into the conversation creates more understanding, empathy and trust for each person’s situation, which become building blocks of joint problem solving.

Mutual understanding is the goal

Remember, your goal is to create a reservoir of shared understanding between you and the other person. This does not mean that you will necessarily see eye to eye on all the issues, but exploring their story and sharing your own will produce common ground from which new understandings, ideas and mutually beneficial ways forward can be crafted.

As Ken Blanchard once said “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, a marriage or a life, any one single conversation can.”

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Alec GrimsleyFor more than a decade, Alec Grimsley has helped individuals to raise and discuss sensitive issues, be that be in the boardroom, in managing difficult people or when giving bad news, such as redundancy or ending a personal relationship. A professional mediator and coach, he is the author of Vital Conversations.

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