Saturday 10 December 2016

Straight talking: Is there an easier way to have tough conversations?

Published 14/07/2015 | 02:30

We spend all our time talking online
We spend all our time talking online

I often wonder how many unfortunate situations could have been avoided had people been willing to broach uncomfortable conversations.

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Would things have been different had you braced yourself to utter the hardest words? "You're drinking too much." / "Do you think you could be depressed?" / "We haven't made love in six months now."

We might spend all day conversing on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, but even in the midst of the digital communication revolution, most of us are still incapable of having the conversations that really matter.

Timothy Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, writes: "A person's success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have."

In Ireland, success seems to be measured on our ability to avoid and redirect these conversations. We complain about restaurants and hairdressers only after we've left the premises (and tipped a fiver). We rely on third-party deflection by blaming "circumstances beyond my control" and pointing the finger at an illusory "they" instead of "I".

I know people who left jobs because they weren't getting paid enough. Did they ask for a raise? No. I know people who've stopped talking to friends because of a dossier of misdemeanours that they clocked up. Did they mention the misdemeanours to the person in question? Of course not.

My German pal can't comprehend the Irish inability to have uncomfortable conversations, nor our tendency to get offended as soon as a criticism is aired.

She describes her homeland as a "task nation" that simply doesn't have the time for shilly-shallying. Well, that's her excuse for telling me that I'm wearing too much make-up using all the tact of a bulldozer...

Americans are another straight-talking nation, only a culture of talk therapy and a vocabulary of pop psychology terms can make them a little too comfortable with uncomfortable conversations... and liable to say things like "I felt you were passive aggressively venting".

There is a middle ground on these matters, and those that have found it know that confrontation is a gentle art. In fact, they don't even use the word confrontation. They prefer to think of it as negotiation.

Those that do confrontation well tend not to allow their ego to get in the way. As author Wayne Dyer advises: "Before reacting ask yourself, 'Is what I am about to say motivated by my need to be right, or my desire to be kind?'"

They also know that there is a good time and a bad time to approach these subjects. Experience tells us that it is almost always catastrophic when we're angry, tired or under the influence, while basic human decency should tell us that doing it in front of an audience, or via an email, is the very definition of weakness.

The environment should feel safe and supportive. If you're about to engage in a tough talk with a loved one, try to do it after a period of bonding. If you need to broach an issue with a colleague, make sure to emphasise their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

Ultimately, it's not what you say but how you say it.

As Douglas Stone explains in Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most: "The big three blind spots," he says, "are tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. The listener is very aware of these; the talker is not".

We've all felt compelled to either attack or withdraw when the person criticising us changes their tone to soft and gentle (read: patronising) or cold and clipped (read: domineering). And don't get me started on the women that do that slack-jawed sigh thing...

Perhaps we don't respond well to this style of confrontation because we know their speech has been rehearsed and that our reaction has been anticipated. The trick is to say less and listen more. "The single most important thing you can do is to shift your internal stance from 'I understand' to 'Help me understand',"continues Stone. "Everything else follows from that".

Stone, who is a lecturer at Harvard Law School, is describing mindful listening, which most of us neglect to do during confrontation.

Often we're poised between attack and defence, too busy inspecting our arsenal of weaponry to really listen to what the other person is saying.

We forget to ask questions too - save for the smartarse rhetorical ones. However, questions are as important as statements and if you really want to reach accord, it's prudent to repeatedly ask the person if they can see your point of view. It's a reminder that this is a negotiation and that you want reconciliation.

Remember too that this isn't about he said, she said, hence your vocabulary should be chosen accordingly. Try to say "I feel" instead of "you made me feel" and avoid starting sentences with "you always" and "you never". Equally, try not to use the phrases "you should" or "you need" - unless you specifically want to wave a red rag in front of a bull...

Every confrontation throws up an aspect of our own behaviour that we didn't consider, or a little fact that we overlooked. Perhaps this is why some people avoid confrontation - they fear the retort as much as they fear the reaction.

By the same token, some people avoid confrontations because they don't know what it is that they really want to gain. For instance, do you want to resuscitate your relationship, or do you unconsciously want to end it?

Confrontations are never easy, but if you're about to initiate one, remember that the first uncomfortable conversation you need to have is with yourself.

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