November 6, 2019

Dialogue Skills Part 2: Identifying Problems

Mental Health & Wellbeing

This blog series has explored ways to successfully navigate crucial conversations. When the stakes are high, emotions intense, and opinions differ, dialogue can challenge even the most skilled conversationalist. However, you can learn and grow in your ability to stay in these challenging conversations and pursue the best outcome for the relationship.

Dialogue is the free flow of information between two or more people. When this free flow of information is hindered, dialogue is no longer happening. In other words, when information is hindered from getting into the conversation, this is a sign that there is a problem that needs fixed so the conversation can continue in a fruitful way.

Learning to notice and correct problems in conversations is a dialogue skill that leads to successful conversations. The book, Crucial Conversations, has three suggestions for spotting conversation problems. Practice watching for these three conditions in your conversations.

Watch for the moment the conversation turns crucial.

It is not uncommon to find oneself in a routine conversation and then all of a sudden realize that the conversation turned intense. Other times, you know that you are entering into a crucial conversation. Knowing when you are involved in a crucial conversation will help you be proactive in maintaining the conversation, catching and responding to problems early, and avoid straying off track.

Signs that you are in or about to enter a crucial conversation can be different for each person. Some first notice a physical response, such as sudden tension in their shoulders or jaw, stomach discomfort, or feeling dizzy or sweaty. For others, the first sign is seen in their emotions. They feel fear, anger, or hurt and begin to react to these emotions. Emotions are helpful indicators that you might be in a crucial conversation, and need to practice dialogue skills. Others notice their behavior changes, such as raising their voice, pacing back and forth, or withdrawing from the conversation. For some, this is the first indication that the conversation has turned crucial. Think back to a few of your more recent crucial conversations, and see if you can identify the signs that you experienced.

Watch for safety problems.

Once you realize you are in a crucial conversation, you can start to watch for safety problems. These are problems with the conditions of the conversation, rather than the content of the conversation. When a conversation feels safe, and like you will not be attacked or embarrassed for your contribution, information flows freely. However, when it feels unsafe, you can become defensive. The authors of Crucial conversation assert, “We’re suggesting that people rarely become defensive simply because of what you’re saying. They only become defensive when they no longer feel safe. The problem is not the content of your message but the condition of the conversation.”

When a conversation turns unsafe, fear is triggered, and fear is typically responded to with a fight or flight response. The threatened person becomes violent or silent. Good conversationalist watch for these signs of safety, and label them as safety problems that need to be addressed. The hard part is that when someone starts attacking or withdraws from a conversation because they feel unsafe, it can feel personal, threatening, and triggering to you. This is the crucial moment, that requires an override to your system. Your system says, “Protect! Defend! Fight Back!” Your perspective narrows and you can easily become part of the problem. Challenging your brain with a more complex challenge, such as, “How can I restore safety in our conversation,” will help expand your perspective and activate wisdom. This takes practice! Start watching conversations today for signs of silence or violence.

Watch for your own style under stress.

Becoming more aware of your own contributions to dialogue problems can be very difficult. It is hard to be aware of your behavior when you are in the middle of an emotionally intense, high stakes conversation with differing opinions. However, this is worth gaining insight on, especially if you want to improve your ability to maintain healthy dialogue.

Perhaps you can already guess your tendency under stress. Do you withdraw, avoid, or mask your feelings? Or maybe you turn towards attacking, controlling, or dismissing others? If you can identify your tendencies when you feel threatened, you can start paying particular attention to when your behavior changes when you are in conversations.

This blog is really just scratching the surface of ways to improve communication. Becoming more skilled at increasing your awareness of when conversations turn crucial, learning to notice and respond to safety problems, and enhancing your self awareness can all contribute to improved conversations. I would love to help you on your journey towards improved dialogue skills, and help you reflect as you practice these skills. Give me a call today!

Written by therapist Amie Bilson

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