If you are like me, sometimes the things that come to mind quickest as New Year’s resolutions are things that are focused on me as an individual: getting back into my practice of running regularly, reading more, etc. But what about my relationships? What about my significant other, my family members, my friends? Is there anything that I would want to improve about my way of communicating or listening? I think that, realistically speaking for me, there will always be room for growth in my relationships and in my way of communicating. I come from a broken home…and the holidays are always a reminder of that. So, communication is always something that I want to be trying to improve. I want to continue to write the story of my family but with a different ending when readers come to the chapter about my relationships. I have been hurt by others’ lack of effort or ability to see or hear me in a conversation and I have hurt others because I failed to listen or to see them…but I don’t want it to end there. I can change and I can learn from how I have fallen short.
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most is a great book and a great resource that was put together by three authors: Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project. In this blog post and in the next few that I write, I will share a few tips from their book that can be of help as we think about how to challenge ourselves in our way of communicating. I would suggest though, that if you haven’t already, that you find some way, some resource that will enrich how you think about speaking, about listening and about how to create the right environment for others to feel that they want to share who they are and what they need. Maybe that will mean finding a good therapist or getting a book or listening to some podcasts or scheduling in some quality time to listen to your significant other.
Here is the first recommendation that the authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most share in their book: sort out the “three” conversations. After analyzing thousands of conversations they arrive to the conclusion that every conversation is really three conversations and that it is vitally important to distinguish between them:
- The “What-Happened?” Conversation – This is the content of the spoken messages – who is to blame, who did what, what needs to happen, what should have happened, what did happen. Sometimes we get very stuck in this part of the conversation because we believe that it will all be solved by the truth, by some hidden and evil intention being brought to light or by blaming someone else. But there is more to a conversation than the facts…and the first step is to realize that although the facts may be the facts, they can be colored in very different ways by feelings.
- The Feelings Conversation – Are my feelings valid? Are they appropriate? Is it safe to share my anger or sadness? Can I share by fears? Will I loose this relationship if I say that I am feeling hurt?
- The Identity Conversation – What does this conversation mean about me? Am I good? Am I bad because the other person is not happy? Am I competent? Am I incompetent?
The authors go on to explain that what is really crucial in a conversation is what people are thinking and feeling but are not saying. So the first step is to be able to identify the particulars of each of these three realms and to feel comfortable enough to manage what is going on in each and to talk about it. If I don’t feel safe or able to manage these various elements of the conversation, I will simply disengage or become overly anxious or enraged. In other words, I will be overcome by what is not being said. But it takes time – and often time alone by myself or with someone supportive who is not in the relationship – to realize what is going on inside of me and what is missing in the conversation. I may need to ask for that time and to set a time to return to the issues at hand with the other person.
The next step in a successful conversation will be shifting into a learning stance. Learning about what is in me, in other, at stake, etc. Do I know what is going on in the other person? Have I asked questions in an open ended way that their thinking and feeling can also be brought to the table? Can I invite them to learn about me?
In my next blog, I will discuss the next recommendation in understanding and mastering the art of having a difficult but effective conversation. Please contact us at Life Skills Resource Group if you feel that you may need assistance as you learn the art of having difficult conversations. We would welcome the opportunity to help facilitating deeper discussions in your relationships.
Take care and Happy New Year!