20 Feb 2018

Have Difficult Conversations (like a Real Human Being)

[Dave] I have struggled my entire life with having difficult conversations. I grew up in a loving and supportive family, but we didn’t have a lot of constructive debates about challenging subjects around the dinner table. People have a remarkable capacity for avoiding discomfort, so when Dad got upset and raised his voice, we all got quiet or tried to leave the room.

[Barbara] Both personally or professionally, I have seen so many instances where unresolved issues turn into festering messes because people side step difficult conversations to avoid conflict. It is human nature to find the path of least resistance. And whether we have been socially conditioned or scared into believing difficult conversations equal conflict and conflict equals pain, most people will go out of their way to avoid it.

[Dave] And yet you seem to be able to get your point across better than me. Even in the companies you’ve work for, you were the “go-to person” when a difficult subject had to be broached with client or an employee. How do you do it?

[Barbara] Often, we believe conversations will be difficult because we focus on what we believe will be the negative reaction or drama that may unfold by directly addressing an issue. Even more so, we fixate on our own feelings and how uncomfortable we feel then turn that into what the other person will say. So, we sweep it away and say nothing. Actually, I have found this makes it much worse. Well, then how do I address it? Fortunately, I have always been a pretty straightforward person and have found it to be far more uncomfortable to say nothing than directly, professionally and compassionately addressing the conflict. And in most cases, I have sensed there is almost a sign of relief in the room when it is out in the open and a respectful discussion can lead to resolution. A colleague once called me “the voice of reason” with my ability to calmly and diplomatically, but directly address the elephant in the room. But I am likely the exception than the rule.

[Dave] But what happens if you’re not a straightforward person? As you know, I use humor a lot to get along with people. I’ve only recently realized that humor can be also be used as a shield to avoid pain or as a distraction device to avoid tough subjects or when dealing with people who push my buttons.

[Barbara] There isn’t a human being alive that isn’t above being irritated by people from time to time, especially those who know how to push their buttons. But personal and professional growth isn’t always about getting along with everyone all the time. There will always someone who rubs us the wrong way, whether that be a spouse, partner, co-worker, boss, or family member.

So what can you do? Here are some tips to help you.

1. The three RHB gears are really about trying to gain some self-awareness. So, when you find yourself in a difficult situation, first do a gear-check on yourself. A 1st gear response would be to interpret everything as a personal insult. Then of course, you could go quiet or you could 2nd gear-retaliate. Instead, ask yourself, ‘is this really about me?’

Understand that present feelings often arise from thoughts based on our past experiences. You may have triggers that come from previous experiences. View the present situation as an opportunity to resolve a primary conflict so that you aren’t as triggered in other situations.

2. Focus on the cause of the issue not the symptoms or effects. Part of the RHB code is “assume everyone is intelligent” so it’s better to talk about the cause than label a person. For example, “Steve, I know you’re upset, so let’s figure out how to stop this from happening again” is better than “Steve, you’re an impatient and hostile person.”

Another part of the RHB code is “get over yourself” Ask yourself, are you fighting to get what you want in the moment versus discovering what you really need in the long run, so nothing actually gets solved or healed? People admire someone who can look inward and admire culpability when they’ve made a mistake. Don’t let your ego get in the way of a solution.

A 3rd gear response would be trying to get past a 2nd gear reaction towards a calm and diplomatic examination of the facts. Remember, 3rd gear doesn’t mean compliance, you can stand your ground in 3rd gear.

3. Always remember, not everyone will have the same reaction or extent of reaction than you. Truly understanding this allows you to better deal with the person or situation in a calm, professional, direct manner no matter how the other chooses to behave. 3rd gear is a higher level of thinking where you do not 2nd gear mirror that other person’s emotional state. And In many cases, it is far worse in your head than the actual conversation.

The key to reducing the drama in these kinds of relationships isn’t to convince the other person that we’re right, or to change the person, but to better understand ourselves, and why we allow these situations to trigger certain emotions in us. When we do understand those dynamics better, we are more effectively able to navigate challenging relationships, with far less emotion or drama.

Confrontation does not have to involve conflict.

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