They are all too common, those difficult conversations we would do almost anything to avoid. And though we do try our best to avoid them, that never seems to work. Sooner or later, we get cornered by a situation grown intolerable for at least one of the parties in the mix. If no one musters up the courage to dive into the situation, someone eventually “breaks” and the vectors of the conflict fly across the room from every angle. Chaos ensues. The perils of avoiding a difficult conversation are many and complex and they merit separate attention. Today, however, I want to think about why we are tempted to embrace avoidance in the first place.
I would like to venture the hypothesis that the temptation to embrace avoidance arises not just because conversations about painful conflicts are hard. Even if such conflicts are hard, if they were reliably successful in achieving a constructive outcome, no one would choose the inevitable failure of avoidance over the promise of eventually getting what we want in exchange for facing sooner rather than later the challenges ahead.
Instead, I think the reason we are tempted to embrace avoidance is that we have so much experience messing things up worse whenever we try to talk about triggering and difficult issues. Based on this experience, we cannot help but feel doomed either way, and therefore we are less inclined to speed our unhappy fate along by opening up the dangerous subject. You may end up catching me, we say to the situation, but I’m certainly not going to help you do it!
Well, let's see if we can find a more hopeful approach to our plight.
Perhaps there is a way to learn how not to mess things up whenever we gather the courage to talk about a conflict simmering away unacknowledged between ourselves and others important in our lives. The best resource I know for achieving this goal is the wonderful book, Difficult Conversations, by the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project. In this book, the authors set forth a basic anatomy universal to every kind of difficult conversation. In its most simplified version this anatomy consists of three layers to every difficult conversation: the What Happened Layer or Conversation; the Feelings Layer or Conversation and the Identity Layer or Conversation. At each of these layers, there are pitfalls that can lead a person to really mess things up. However, the greatest number of pitfalls is to be found in the surface layer, the What Happened Conversation. Thus, although really working out what is at issue in a highly charged conflict almost always requires navigating the pitfalls at the deeper Feelings and Identity Layers, all too often the conversation runs off the rails just as it is getting started -- in the What Happened Layer.
The Truth Assumption: The First of Three Pitfalls Lurking in the What Happened Layer
The what happened layer of any difficult conversation is where we discuss the “facts” concerning who, what, how, when, where, and why. Ideally, this layer of the conversation should be the place where we narrow the scope of the rest of the conversation, by identifying lots of points on which we have agreement. These points of agreement help foster a sense of trust that the participants are proceeding reasonably and are not completely antagonistic to us in every way.
Unfortunately, all too often we enter the What Happened Conversation from a place of being emotionally triggered and off balance as a result of all that we feel is at stake. In this state of imbalance, we overlook the fact that in discussing the facts of what happened, we all have access to a limited and different amount of attention. We also are prone to overlook that it is inevitable that we all pay attention to different types of information, some focusing more, say, on dollars and cents, and others focusing more on integrity of process, morale, or creativity. In addition, we will all interpret information based on our unique experience and we all are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is the universal tendency to give more weight to facts supporting our perceived self-interest. Overlooking these limitations on our understanding of the objective facts of “what happened” leads us into our first pitfall: the Truth Assumption.
The Truth Assumption is an either/or mindset that says: “Either I am right and you are wrong, or you are right and I am wrong. One of us has exclusive title to the truth.” In the Truth Assumption pitfall, of course, we plainly see all the ways the other person is wrong. Therefore, we conclude, we must be the one who is right. But can it really be in our best interest to lock ourselves into a position that assumes we have all the necessary information to determine the best course of action forward? Do we really have so much confidence in our personal experience and habitual pattern of focus that we can reject out of hand the other person's perspective? Not only does this attitude lock us into a situation where each side plainly sees the flaws in the other’s position and thus is strongly disinclined to accede to it, but it also holds us back from learning from the conflict and leaves us continuing to suffer inside it instead.
The solution offered by Difficult Conversations is to employ a learning posture which they call “The And-Stance.” In the And-Stance, we approach the person with whom we have a conflict with an understanding that the conflict revolves around two different stories: the story we have about what happened AND the story the other has about what happened. In mustering the courage to initiate the difficult conversation, rather than avoid it, we formulate a way to introduce the topic for discussion with the other in a way that acknowledges both stories.
In formulating this opening, it is important to remove all trace of judgment or accusation. For example, one might say: “Joe, I know we’ve been avoiding discussing the difference we have about the best way to handle my work load. I’m aware you feel I am neglecting my paperwork AND I feel that allocating more time to my paperwork will create unconscionable neglect of the people in my heavy caseload. I’d really like it if we could sit down and talk about how to prioritize my work duties given our agency’s mission and the size of my caseload.” Here, I am acknowledging the story my supervisor has about what is happening at the same time I help focus us on our shared need to clarify priorities by repeating the word neglect when describing my own story about what happened. There is no name calling and no insinuation that anyone is doing anything wrong. Note, however, that my description of our conflict does not pretend that both sides are “right.” The “and” in the And-Stance simply holds that both sides’ story matters, not that both sides can continue acting as they have been without making any changes. At the same time, my formulation does not require either of us to give up our position. Instead, it focuses both of our energies forward on trying to agree upon a way to manage the situation better in the future.
Practice with the And-Stance really builds confidence that there are effective ways to keep a difficult conversation constructive, as does practice with the suggestions provided in Difficult Conversations for avoiding the other two pitfalls in the What Happened Conversation: the Intention Invention and the Blame Frame. Navigating these two pitfalls will be the subject of my next post.
Over time as your confidence in navigating these different pitfalls grows, you will begin to trust that engaging in the difficult conversation in a skillful way up front is infinitely more desirable than avoiding it until the conflict suddenly erupts uncontrolled.
Here at Family Tree Mediation, one of the services I offer is communication and personal development coaching. If you are looking for help preparing for a difficult conversation, wanting to improve your communication skills generally, or seeking a support vehicle for clarifying and pursuing your goals for your ongoing evolution, I invite you to give me a call to schedule a coaching session at (650) 762-8733 or email me at:
Photo by Flickr user orangesky3 used under a creative commons license.
Oh, and I can't recommend highly enough this terrific book!