Difficult Conversations – Advanced Skills

In the previous article we considered some initial thoughts about what to bear in mind when approaching a difficult conversation. Always be mindful as I said that good relationships are the foundation of what we’re trying to do. These good relationships, these meaningful relationships hinge on factors like dependability, kindness, honesty, empathy, authenticity, and the apparent obvious valuing of the relationship.

So firstly, simply offering a listening ear I feel is an advanced skill. Because often when we’re busy we forget how to sit quietly and simply listen. Doing this gives the opportunity for people to share their words and their feelings and it develops trust. And here is the first thing to think of. If the person says something you don’t understand or flies in the face of the logical progression in your head place that lack of understanding on yourself. So, phrases here to use would be things like, “can you explain that a little further to me”,  “I want to be able to understand clearly what it is that you’re telling me”. And let the person talk again while you listen.

What we’re trying to do here is what Boghossian and Lindsay call, in their book “How To Have Impossible Conversations”, building golden bridges. The first part of building a golden bridge is to understand what the other person is saying. Secondly, if this is the case, gently point out discrepancies in what they might be seeing. Get them to think about those discrepancies and articulate them to you in the way that they want to. A golden bridge offers them the opportunity to change what they’re saying, on reflection, without being socially embarrassed by what they have said. I’m sure you’re aware that people engage better with decisions when they feel as though it is them who have made the decision. This is where your effective communication, counselling, and negotiation skills are essential. More on negotiation here. What we’re doing here is trying to head off the conflict before the conflict emerges even when the conversation is difficult. Remember people don’t knowingly desire bad things. People don’t knowingly desire to make decisions that compromise themselves or others. They genuinely think – for whatever reason – they are making a good decision.

Collaborative language

What we’re trying to establish with these advanced skills is that we are in this together within the interaction that is taking place. And the application of this technique is quite simple to describe but often quite difficult to implement.

Start by using the words ‘we’ and ‘us’.

Weinstein and Deutschberger two sociologists said that we is one of the most seductive of English words. Its inclusion in what you say forms a relationship structured in terms of mutuality and interdependence. So, try to replace ‘you’ or ‘I’ with ‘we’.

Also, in the same vein the use of the word ‘us’ is important. “it would be great for us if we could figure out how to move forward on this issue”. “How can we see if that will work”. “How can we give that a go so everybody is safe”.

This next idea also relies on really listening but also on restating the other persons position as well or better than they did.

You should do this before you openly disagree with anything. What this does, at the very least, is show the person that they have been heard, that their voice is important, and that you have accurately heard what they had to say. It also gives them a chance to correct you if that is required. Inevitably you may need to propose a different plan but if they know they’ve been heard they may be more receptive to listening to the alternative.

Taking this approach eliminates the ‘yes but’ statement. When you disagree with something someone has said it’s quite easy to fall into the ‘yes but’ trap. ‘Yes but’ encourages anger and I think it’s worth noting at this point that when someone states a position, they are often stating that position in good faith because for whatever reason, in their position, from their subjective perspective, they think that’s the best thing they can do.

Now they might think that’s the best thing to do because it’s easy or because it doesn’t challenge their world. Or maybe it gets you off their back, but they will authentically think that that’s the best thing to do for them in this moment. Why might that be so?

One of the problems may be cognitive bandwidth. People who have problematic lives, who were often living in poverty, who are often not heard have limited ‘bandwidth’ to consider future options and tend to live in the short term. If their concern in the short-term is to pay the rent or put food on the table, they may not have the cognitive ‘space’ to consider future options. So, if a solution appears to work to them in the short term, or it maintains the life they have so that they are not challenged to change, then they will genuinely believe that that is the best thing to do. When people don’t have a great deal of cognitive bandwidth it’s doubly hard for them to engage in change related tasks. Just imagine for yourself when you are trying to facilitate a change – think of something basic like maybe losing weight or getting fit – if that was the only thing you had to do – if that was the only thing you had to worry about you might be able to give it a good go – you might even start well – but once you have a rough day at the office, or an argument with your partner, or an invite out for a Friday night, how easily the momentum to make the change disappears. And the people we often work with have many many challenges in their lives – you being there maybe being one of them

Rapaport’s rules

Rappoport was a Russian born American game theorist who contemplated a list of rules for offering disagreement or criticism in conversations and we can learn a little something from what he had to say.

Here are his rules….

Rule #1 – expressing the persons position shows that you have made a sincere attempt to understand their position.

Rule #2 – shows that you actually have things in common in relation to the issue despite maybe coming to different conclusions.

Rule 3 – demonstrates mutual learning and respect by showing the person that what they said was informative and valuable. This gets called in a lot of the literature pro social modelling. You are behaving in the way that you want the other person to behave.

So, build Golden Bridges – give people a way out or they may become entrenched in a position even if you’ve convinced them otherwise

Use ‘We’ and ‘Us’ to engender a spirit of ‘in it together’.

Be aware that people in difficult circumstances may have limited cognitive ‘bandwidth’ to consider future options

Apply Rapaport’s rules

This is the second of 3 articles in this series

The others are here

Difficult Conversations – Some initial thoughts

Difficult Conversations – Dealing with anger

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