Do you have an important conversation you’ve been dreading?

I don’t know about you but with all that is going on in the world, with the virus, racism, and the economy I find myself having critical conversations daily! Effectively handling emotionally charged conversations can make or break a relationship. Whether these conversations happen between parents and children, partners, extended family members or even friends and neighbors we can easily get stuck. Delivering difficult news, responding to disagreements or even trying to share your opinions with others can lead to hard feelings when done unskillfully.

Some of us avoid these conversations in an attempt to keep the peace and others want to tackle the issue head on, sometimes appearing aggressive and ineffective. It’s important to recognize an escalating conversation and know how to transform intense emotion into powerful dialogue. Actually by engaging in these types of conversations skillfully we can learn how to hold space for various viewpoints without feeling threatened and heal relationships. The four steps to effectively engaging in critical conversations include:

1) Recognizing a conversation is critical. Not all conversations are critical. In fact, most are not. But with all that is going on in the world right now….many of our conversations are critical. A critical conversation is one where:

-we have a difference of opinion; 

-we are emotionally charged and

-the relationship really matters. 

A critical conversation can come out of nowhere or may have been on our mind. By recognizing when we have reached a critical moment, we can employ the skills necessary to engage successfully.

2) Uncovering the motive. After we recognize if a conversation is a critical one, think about what you want from it. What is your motive? It turns out we have healthy motives, such as wanting to build a relationship, and unhealthy motives, like wanting to be right. The motive sets up the direction of the entire conversation. If we want to be right, chances are your dialogue will follow suit. You may argue your point, find yourself interrupting, being aggressive or just shutting down. If your motive is to build the relationship, the dialogue will take a much different path – one that will be more oriented to wanting to understand the other person’s point of view.  We can understand our motive by asking ourselves these three questions: What do I want for myself? What do I want for the other person? What do I want for the relationship/family/team/organization? If your motive is to be right, you can pretty much guarantee a negative outcome. I ask myself…do I want to be right? or connected?

3) Understanding the facts vs. the story. Now that you have a sense of what you want, another key strategy is to understand the difference between facts and stories. Let me give you an example: My partner comes home from work, throws his briefcase on the table, walks out to the garage with his phone and doesn’t even say hello. I instantly say to myself, wow he must be angry. Some might say, he must be angry with me. I try to go up to him and he brushes me off. I get more frustrated and decide to just ignore him. Meanwhile, the thoughts go through my head about what is wrong with him. I remember a conversation we had earlier in the week about his mother and how I wasn’t in the mood to visit her. I say to myself, ah that must be it. He must be upset with me about the mother comment. I just described a scene that could happen in just about any family. There are some facts and some stories in my scenario. Can you tell which parts are facts and which parts are stories? Being able to separate out the facts from the stories help us engage in more effective dialogue.

4) Stick with it. Critical conversations are not only difficult to engage in but also difficult to stay in. For me, when I feel the intense emotion, I have an urge to end the conversation and leave the room. Other times we might want to lash out, yell, and argue. “Stick with it” is a helpful reminder to stay with the dialogue. 

S – Share your facts

T – Tell your story

I – Involve others – ask for input

C – Create and maintain safety

K – Keep the dialogue going

Share your facts. In the case of the scenario with my partner, I might say, “I noticed you threw your briefcase down on the table and walked outside without saying hello.”

Tell your story. This is the part where you share what you might be thinking. I might say, “I’m wondering if you are upset with me.”

Involve others – ask for input. Often times we stay in our story without checking it out with others. This makes the story get bigger and bigger. Asking for input with my partner might look like this: “Am I seeing this accurately?” Or: “tell me what is happening with you.” When we share our facts, tell our story and THEN ask for input we can get the critical conversation off to a good start. 

Create and maintain safety. When we feel safe, we can come forward and share what is on our mind. Otherwise, we tend to shut down or raise our defenses. In a critical conversation, safety is like air. When it disappears we can not breathe. 

How can we create a sense of safety for ourselves and others that we are talking to? Our tone of voice needs to be slow and low and our facial expressions need to be open and soft. The time that we set aside for this conversation is a crucial element for safety. If it is 15 minutes before a business meeting or in the middle of cooking dinner, that might not be the best time. Plan a time that works for you, when you are able to access the calm part of yourself. You’ll need to minimize distractions, so close the laptop, put down the phone and turn off the television. You’ll want to give each other the time and attention that a critical conversation deserves. Ask your conversation partner when would be a good time to discuss this and respect and honor their wishes. If tomorrow afternoon is better, make a plan, put it on the calendar and come back together to discuss the issue. 

Keep the dialogue going . A critical conversation is about creating dialogue, not about convincing someone to do as you say or forcing them to believe what you believe. Dialogue is when two or more people contribute to the discussion and create a shared pool of meaning.   When we have a shared pool of meaning we can come to a deeper understanding of what is important to both parties and resolve problems. This is not easy, especially when the emotions are strong. 

Interested in learning more communication skills to improve your relationship? Check out my new guide Rewire your Relationship. Or join my list and get access to specific steps you can take to build stronger, safer, healthier relationships.