Tough Talk

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This article was originally published by Phila Engaged Giving and is re-posted here with permission.

Having tough conversations are often a necessary part of social change — both in funding it and in carrying it out. But how do we have a tough discussion that gets our point across without it coming across as a personal affront? I was recently asked to present a webinar for the National Center for Family Philanthropy on how to navigate difficult conversations. I found preparing the material to be a fascinating exercise because it forced me to think in clear and in no uncertain terms how exactly that is done. As a result, I thought I might share a few tactics I’ve learned with you and hope you will find some of them useful.

But before I get to the tips, I want to linger on the conversations themselves. From where do they arise and what exactly makes a conversation difficult? There are a few key elements that come together to make for gnarly conversations. The first is simply two people having differing perceptions. We each see our reality as right and rational and we have different interpretations of the same event or issue. But our interpretations come from different life experiences that have shaped the lens through which we view others, issues, or conflicts. Those differing views can clash.

We assume others’ intent but we do not know what a person’s intentions are. Only they know that. Unless someone explicitly states their intention, again, we do not know their intentions. We cannot assume. Yet, we do.

We also come with impassioned feelings. Oftentimes the main reason why conversations go off the rails is because of the intense emotions that are behind the topic-big or small: race, politics, children or even things as mundane as the timing of a family gathering. They can affect our ego, sense of belonging; they make us feel vulnerable at the wrong time and then emotions run high.

Finally, we search for someone to blame. Someone has to be at fault. Blame is about making judgments, but effective conflict management is about learning from mistakes, understanding different perceptions of the same reality, and adjusting one’s behavior for better results in the future.

The past two decades have given us no shortage of opportunities to have difficult conversations. Whether they’ve been at the dinner table with friends or family, in the office with colleagues, or even in the grocery store with a total stranger. The worst are those when you find yourself in a confrontation with someone you actually care about or with someone with whom you’re in a relationship that you would like to preserve. How do you get your point across yet still honor the relationship, be liked, loved, and cared for? Here are a few tactics I use if you find yourself facing a tough conversation.

Prepare. These are not conversation to go into haphazardly. We need to prepare for them. First by reflecting on what you really want or need from the conversation. Keeping the purpose clear will aid you if things turn sour. You can always recenter yourself in purpose if you lose your way.

Define what success will mean. What it will look like will be different for every situation. Sometimes success will be getting someone to change their mind or do what you want. Other times it may be as simple as awareness of a differing point of view. Manage your expectations by going into the situation with this point clear.

Don’t avoid it. Remember, it’s conflict management, not conflict avoidance. While it may be tempting, avoiding the issue will not make it go away. In fact, small issues simmering in the background can grow into bigger, more intractable problems if left alone to fester.

Make it safe to talk. Having a “safe” conversation means the other person feels they can trust you. You can build that trust by acknowledging your mutual purpose—you’re both there because you’re upset and want to leave feeling better.

Listen. “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Good listening in a conflict situation requires an open and honest curiosity about the other person, and a willingness and ability to suspend judgement. Listen because you care, not to prove them wrong.

Ask open-ended questions by beginning with “Help me understand…” or “Tell me more about…” To make sure you are getting the accurate meaning, you can paraphrase what you heard back to them. And finally, acknowledge feelings. I mentioned earlier that it is a key component to what causes these interactions in the first place, so you don’t have to ignore them!

Separate intent from impact. We all come into situations with our own narrative. Be honest and check what assumptions you’re coming in with. The authors of the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Viking Press, 1999) said it perfectly: “It is common during a difficult situation to make an attribution about another person’s intentions based on the impact of their actions on us. We feel hurt; therefore we believe they intended to hurt us. We feel slighted; therefore we believe they intended to slight us. Our thinking is so automatic that we aren’t even aware that our conclusion is only an assumption.”

Use “I” statements. Sentences that start with “I” are less inflammatory and they keep responsibility for what is expressed with the person doing the speaking.

Attempt a solution. I use the word “attempt” here purposefully. Some difficult conversations, like those about race, may not have an immediate solution. Expect and accept that there may not be closure. It is not likely that you will resolve your personal understanding about discrimination or another person’s life experience that drove them to hold a certain view in a single conversation. Authentic and productive conversations about anything difficult are continuous and always evolving. We don’t always get closure.

Follow up. If this is a relationship that needs to be nurtured, following up is always a nice gesture. Was there any unfinished business that can be taken care of? Is there an opportunity to reset casually on the phone or over e-mail (a little distance). If it feels right, do it.

All of these tips require a high EQ and an ability to have self-knowledge. Not only must we know ourselves, we also must tap into the spirit of our partner in dialogue. What moves them, what triggers them, what kind of delivery are they most apt to hear and respond to? (story or data?). It requires energy, thought, and time, but the effort is usually worth it. And, you will find that it does get easier with practice.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith is the founder and principal at Phila Engaged Giving

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.