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Difficult Conversations (or How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable)

Misty Dunn
Sacramento CA USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 4, August-September 2002 p. 80.

Disagreements are usually thought to be about what happened or what should happen, who said what and who did what, who’s right and who’s to blame. In the book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, the authors say that difficult conversations (disagreements) are “almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values.” Disagreements are difficult to deal with particularly because they ask and answer questions about feelings: Are my feelings valid, should I acknowledge or deny them, and what about the other person’s feelings? A huge part of any difficult conversation involves identity issues: Am I competent or incompetent? What impact will this have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well-being? Considering all these things truly makes discussing a disagreement difficult and is why they often get out of hand!

There are basically five methods of responding to disagreement:

1. Ignore: look away, turn away, walk away, change the subject.

2. Inform: refer to an authority, such as a book or a medical professional.

3. Use humor: make fun of yourself or the situation, not the other person.

4. Acknowledge: agree to disagree or shift focus to other person’s past experience.

5. Empathize: restate the other person’s feeling and reason for the feeling; open the door to further discussion.

When you think about having a conversation with someone you disagree with, consider why you would have this conversation. Is this person someone important to you, someone with whom you need to work? If not, consider using one of the above responses (1-4). If your purpose is to change the other person or their behavior, to vent or tell them off, then having this conversation will likely have negative consequences. However, if you truly want to have a learning conversation so that you both can live and work together more pleasantly and effectively, there are some strategies that will help to make the conversation be more successful.

If possible, prepare ahead of time by thinking about:

  • What happened: as you see it (past experiences, information) and as they see it.
  • The impact the situation has had on you, what it might have had on them.
  • What their intentions might have been.
  • What you each contributed to the problem (not attributing blame).
  • What you are feeling and what they might be feeling.
  • Identity issues that might be at stake such as fears and self-esteem.

After considering these, think about where and when to have the conversation. If you’re really going to talk, you may need to plan a time and a private place. You’ll need to be explicit with the other person about how much time you’ll need (10 minutes or an hour?) to discuss whatever it is that is important to you.

Difficult Conversations recommends that it’s best to start a difficult conversation from the “third story,” an objective description of what is or has been happening. However, even if someone else starts the conversation, you can still describe the problem as the difference between how he or she sees it and how you do. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion. For example:

“Wow, I can see how you’d be really upset thinking that I (paraphrase what they said). It seems that you and I see this situation differently. I’d like to share how I’m seeing it, and learn more about how you view it."

Every problem has joint contributors. It is pointless to look for blame, so look for how to get beyond the problem so you can work together better. Think of ways you contributed to the problem—maybe by not trying to talk to the other person sooner, or perhaps something you did or didn’t do. Begin the conversation with how you contributed to the problem, then how you think they contributed. Sharing your feelings is vital to a learning conversation. This is a simple act that carries with it amazing benefits. It keeps the focus on feelings and makes it clear that you are speaking only from your perspective without judging or accusing.

You could explain your purpose for the conversation: that you want to invite the other person into a joint exploration, where you are trying to understand their perspective, share your own, and talk about how to go forward together.

The role you offer needs to be genuine! The purpose of this conversation is not to change the other person or manipulate them in any way. Instead you are initiating a learning conversation that will enhance your working relationship.

When we are faced with a difficult conversation, it can be challenging to respond without defensiveness. Accepting and respecting another’s opinion when our own convictions are strong can leave us feeling uncomfortable. Keep in mind that the goal is not to win or trick the other with manipulation. The goal is to defuse the conflict so that you can begin to understand the concerns of others, and share your own as well, in a non-threatening manner to achieve better understanding.

Misty Dunn is Division Human Relations Coordinator for USWD. She has been an active Leader for 31 years. She has a family of six children and two grandchildren. In 2001, she retired from teaching so she could devote more time to LLL. In November, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer so she is now also actively advocating public awareness about ovarian cancer. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2002 issue of Connections Vol. 99 the USWD’s publication for LLL Area Personnel. Submissions for the “Helping Mothers” column may be sent to Nan Vollette, 132 Powhatan Pkwy, Hampton, VA 23661 USA, vollette at (email).

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