Conversations can be messy. When we account for different communication styles, varying worldviews, stress, timelines, competing agendas, children, chores, fears and trauma, we have good reason why a simple dialogue can spiral into triggers and chaos. And when a pattern of unhealthy communication forms, the walls get thicker and it becomes harder to speak candidly and address the meat of the problem and matter at hand.
And so what can be done to limit this possibility? Here are five ways to smooth out potentially messy conversations:
1. Create a Signal:
You and whoever may benefit from agreeing in advance to have a signal that an important conversation wants to be had. For instance, you agree that whenever one of you desires to speak to the other about something personal or pertinent, you ask for, say, a “check in”. This signals that this is not simply you needing to talk about where to eat for lunch, but rather about something that may require a level of vulnerability and openness.
2. Design Safety:
During this same initial discussion, share what is needed from both of you so that each feels safe to disclose and is willing to share. For instance, you may request or agree upon:
- presence / attentive listening
- being open-minded, curious / asking questions (not interrogation / leading questions)
- demonstrating genuine care
- showing empathy or an acknowledgement of the other’s challenges / concerns
- speaking calmly and slowly
- waiting until the other person says “I am complete” before responding
- noticing and managing any inner triggers
- showing appreciation / seeking value in what is being said versus looking for problems
- reminding oneself that what the other is saying is not easy for them, and that they are doing their best
- having the courage to own your part of the situation
It may be useful to go through some of these somewhat general terms to understand them more fully together. What exactly does empathy look like in a vulnerable conversation? What does it mean to stay open when one does not agree? It may also be helpful to examine where you have succeeded in demonstrating these qualities and how they benefited the discourse.
3. Decide on a time and location:
When the moment arises that you sense a “check in” is needed, state to the person, “I need to do a check in. Is this a good time?” If the person says “Yes”, then agree upon a location and begin. If they say “No”, then ask, “When would be a good time, and what would be a good location?” The time and physical environment is essential, for each contributes to optimizing the grounding and presence needed to engage.
A personal favorite physicality for challenging discourse is side-to-side: going for a walk, taking a drive, or while in bed together (the latter perhaps not the best for workmates… unless it is!). Sitting across from one another can also work, but there is something non-threatening about not glaring into each other’s vulnerable eyes. If you decide on face-to-face, I do recommend, particularly for co-workers, that they go out at the end of the day, have a glass of wine or a beer at a casual establishment, anything that may help loosen the barriers, calm the nerves, and assist both parties to lean back in their chairs with a smile and say, Who cares! It doesn’t really matter. Now how about that election!
4. Choose Language Wisely and Ensure Choice:
Speaking in first and third person language where possible will keep your connection alive more than speaking on behalf of the other. “I/We really need you to arrive on time” will be received more than “You really need to arrive on time”. Using tentative language also helps—saying “I wonder if we could…” will keep the other engaged more than “We should…”.
The goal in conversation, especially difficult ones, is to maintain connection. Speaking in such a way that the other feels like they have a choice in the matter is essential. Being conscious of your body language, tone and words is key.
5. Do Your Inner Work:
The last and, perhaps, most important way to smooth potentially messy conversations is to commit to self-reflection, otherwise known as inner work. You will get triggered. That goes without saying. But is the other person the cause or the trigger? Chances are they are the latter. The cause exists in you, but without self-awareness you will attribute it to whomever you are speaking with. This does not mean the other person should not take personal responsibility for their tone, words and actions. It simply means that they are like snake charmers conjuring old pre-existing wounds, usually unwittingly. Painful as it is, they are, in fact, being of great service to you, for if they don’t reveal your old trauma and fears to you, someone else will. History repeats itself, as we all know.
And so committing to yoga, meditation, counseling, life coaching, a wellness program, the Camino pilgrimage or regular pilgrimages in your local trails, will go a long way to help you stay present, centered, attuned to yourself and the other; and it will support you to take ownership of what is occurring on your end of things instead of projecting your old wounds and stories onto the other.
I wish you the best in your conversational travels!
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults