Are We Still Friends?
How to have a difficult conversation without losing your cool
Ten years ago, a very pregnant Carly Stasko and her husband, Trevor, were living in Toronto and preparing to welcome their first child. Then, about a month before her due date, Stasko received an email from her mother-in-law, Lynnette Norris. Stasko had planned a home birth, but Norris had concerns about its safety. “Are you open to a discussion?” she asked. At the time, the two women were still building their relationship, and while they got along, they had some differences in their world views.
“I thought, this issue is either going to be a wedge,” says Stasko, now 43, “or it’s going to be something that brings us together.” Stasko agreed to the call.
In the end, the conversation didn’t change either woman’s opinion, but a respectful approach allowed each to feel heard and valued. And by the time Stasko had a successful home birth shortly after, the issue no longer felt so divisive. Today, Stasko and Norris say that first big discussion helped them build a foundation of trust and avoid a legacy of resentment. “It’s like a dance,” says Stasko. “We learnt how not to step on each other’s toes and how not to stay wallflowers.”
Many challenging conversations don’t go as well as this one. It can be intimidating to broach difficult topics with people we care about. Fears about how the other person will respond or about damaging a relationship can keep important conversations out of reach. But don’t despair. If there’s someone in your life you’re truly interested in having constructive dialogue with, there are a few approaches that can help.
Preparation is Key
To start important conversations on the right foot, ask yourself what you want to achieve—and what’s realistic. When we feel strongly about something, we often decide we’re going to change someone’s mind. But is it really possible? Having a chance to talk about an issue that matters to you, or to learn more about someone’s position, might be more realistic goals.
Next, set boundaries for the conversation, commit to respecting them and then enter into the conversation with goodwill. Jackie Shawcross is a volunteer mediator with Community Mediation Calgary Society, an organization with a 28-year history of helping neighbours who feel like they’re stuck in disagreements. She defines goodwill as a true intention to have a conversation or resolve a conflict. “It’s important to remember that it isn’t about resolving conflict the way you want,” she says. “It’s about being willing to compromise to find a solution.”
Shawcross has worked with people to resolve issues related to parking and barking dogs, as well as situations where neighbours’ opposing values made it hard for them to peacefully coexist. As a mediator, she helps to identify the assumptions and biases that are getting in the way of moving forward. An ideal outcome is one in which a person shifts from saying “You’re a horrible neighbour,” to understanding where that person is coming from and what motivates them.
To do that, she adds, it’s vital that people agree on the best way to talk about the issue at hand. In both her mediation work and her personal relationships, Shawcross uses what she calls the CHAT method: check in, have an agenda, arrange a time to talk, and talk.
Too often we bring defensiveness or aggression to important conversations instead of genuine curiosity. “When we’re talking about an issue that’s emotionally, ideologically or politically charged, we tend to instinctively approach it as if we’re soldiers on a battlefield, where our motivation is to defend our pre-existing beliefs or what we want to be true,” says Julia Galef, author of The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t.
To stoke your curiosity, she says, think like a scout. Unlike the soldier, the scout’s goal isn’t to attack or defend. Instead, it’s to see the landscape as clearly and factually as possible.
In her book, Galef gives people examples of how to reframe judgment and defensiveness as curiosity about another person’s perspective. For starters, ask genuine questions and listen to the answers instead of formulating your rebuttal. Follow by being open to learning new information that might shift your perspective or help you discover why someone believes what they believe.
Reset and Move On
Even the best-planned conversations can go sideways. If you’re in a conversation that’s becoming more aggressive or polarized, reset. One technique Galef uses is to visualize herself and the person she’s talking to as two explorers standing shoulder to shoulder, looking out at the same landscape. This mental exercise helps her to remind herself that she is trying to work with the other person to understand the issue.
If your conversation is being derailed by someone spouting a barrage of half-truths or falsehoods, try serving up what linguist George Lakoff calls a “truth sandwich”—the act of using fact to counter falsehood. To do so, begin your response with a factual statement and cite your source and why you trust it. Then indicate the falsehood that’s been shared and what is factually false about it. Then go back to your truthful statement and try to continue the conversation from there.
It’s not an easy task, but it may help you keep the conversation focused and stop it from devolving into a personal attack. Still, sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a civil conversation just isn’t in the cards. Difficult talks can be emotionally and even physically draining. If you’re speaking with someone who isn’t showing goodwill or isn’t listening, it may be time to move on and protect yourself so you have the energy to have the discussions that will really make a difference.