October 17, 2019

Difficult Conversations

Mental Health & Wellbeing

We avoid the most important conversations in our lives for fear we’ll make distressing situations worse, yet our silence causes chronic stress from sustained, unresolved conflict.

Several years ago I read a business book called Crucial Conversations, which I continue to pick up, reread, apply, and ponder. Few books stay with me like this. Crucial conversations are the hard conversations we have; the critical conversations, the ones that carry the most meaning.

Three components make these conversations crucial: high stakes, strong emotions, and varying opinions. These conversations crop up in every area of our lives: fighting with a spouse about something they said that hurt you, delivering negative feedback to a coworker, addressing a rebellious teenager, asking in-laws to be less involved, requesting a roommate to move out, etc.

Learning to successfully approach these conversations can have a dramatic impact on our lives and our emotional well being. In this blog I would like to introduce two key concepts discussed in the book Crucial Conversations that characterize those who have successful conversations when the risk is high: Avoiding the Fool’s Choice and Adding to the Pool of Meaning.

Avoiding The Fool’s Choice

Those that Avoid the Fool’s Choice succeed at honesty and respect in risky conversations. The fools choice is the false assumption that there are only two options when encountering a crucial conversation: Tell the truth, or keep the relationship. The first option assumes that the truth will produce an enemy or ruin the relationship. The second option avoids the conversation despite what is known to be true in order to preserve the relationship. The person suffers in silence while a bad decision is made or while things get worse.

Most of us were taught early on in life to choose between these options. We never tell our grandmother that we didn’t like her pot roast or our favorite uncle that we didn’t care for the birthday present he picked out. This is rude or unkind. Rather, we’re told we shouldn’t say anything at all unless it is nice.

When I was a kid, I remember my parents getting me this cat alarm clock for Christmas. I really wanted that alarm clock…last Christmas. My interests had changed so much in one year that when I opened the gift on Christmas morning, I felt disappointed, despite seeing how excited my parents were to see me open it. How could I be honest?

I felt ashamed that I didn’t like it. I was disappointed in myself because I felt selfish and ungrateful. I masked all of these true feelings behind a fake smile and reassuring statements that I loved the gift. Did I have a better option besides pretending? Was it possible for me to be completely honest and completely respectful at the same time? This is the question that successful conversationalist challenge themselves with when approaching critical conversations. They find a way to tell the truth with care and respect. Tune into your tendency towards the fool’s choice when you are in conversations this week.

Adding to the Pool of Meaning

The authors of Crucial Conversations introduce a concept they call, “The Pool of Meaning.” In essence, dialogue is defined as the free sharing of meaning or information between two or more people. If we are to pursue dialogue with others, then we add our perspective and thoughts to the pool of meaning, while also encouraging others to do the same.

When this free flow of sharing does not happen, then dialogue is not actually happening. For instance, have you ever been in a situation where someone dominated the conversation so much that you or others checked out because your thoughts or opinions clearly didn’t matter? Or maybe you were passionately engaged in a conversation, only to realize that the other person appeared uninterested or unusually quiet. In both cases, an actual conversation was not being had.

Having a deep pool of meaning builds unity, commitment, and promotes better choices. Skilled conversationalists understand the value of having all the relevant information on the table, and they make that their goal in critical conversations. They challenge themselves to contribute as well as seek full and honest contribution from others.

How Do I Do That?

You might be thinking, “Ok, that’s great, but how do I do that?! I’m not sure I can.” The great news is that communication skills can be learned. It comes more naturally for some than others, but everyone can learn and improve these skills. Tune into my next few blogs where I will discuss dialogue skills and how to address the barriers that get in the way of having hard conversations.

Change can be a slow process, so set a small, realistic goal for yourself and try something different in your conversations this week. Counseling is a great place to help you make communication changes, while identifying and removing the barriers that get in the way. If you want to make changes in how you communicate with others, I would love to help you with this goal and support you along the way. Give me a call today!

Written by therapist Amie Bilson

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