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May 21, 2020

How to have Tough Conversations (that don’t turn into Knock-down, Drag-out Fights).

Do you add sugar to your corona conversations?

I recently moved back to the United States after living for 30 years in Stockholm, Sweden.

I am writing from my apartment in a much more crowded area in Miami Beach where the next phase of opening will be tomorrow. I must say that I’m impressed with and grateful for the warmth, hospitality, and intelligence of the people I meet here.

So what does this have to do with handling tough talks?

Not surprisingly, the stress of dealing with being quarantined plus having financial insecurity leaves us all feeling moments of dread and despair.

Our resistance to change and fear of the unknown have already put us in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. However, for life to go on, we need to listen to each other—both what we say and what we don’t say—to be able to have those difficult conversations, whether we are prepared to do so or when they catch us off guard.

Our livelihood, our marriages, and our children’s and families’ welfare depends on it. Under the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves falling into combat mentality, which may or may not prove to be accurate.

During tough talks, unpleasant feelings occur when our emotional triggers are pushed. We stop listening and effectively shut down, either by smoothing things over or lashing out aggressively.

The first thing to do is to notice that we feel stressed and that the other person feels stressed as well. This is not always easy, as different communication styles display stress in different ways. One person may walk out and avoid the discussion, another person may personally attack you, another may attack your premise and facts, and the fourth may call up a friend and “talk behind your back.” These are all normal responses, but they erode trust and don’t address the problem at hand.

Our feelings will not evaporate. The challenge is to move toward the middle ground and focus on the outcome.

One technique is to ask the following questions:

>> What is the problem?
>> What is my preferred outcome?
>> What would my counterpart say is the problem?

And, if possible, ask the other person to also use this technique.

In the fog of a hard talk, we are dealing with ambiguity. This can easily cause us to lose sight of our goal. If this happens, try saying: “I’m realizing as we talk that I don’t fully understand how you see this problem.”

Difficult conversations often turn toxic when we don’t bring enough respect for both ourselves and the other person into the conversation. The key is to avoid oversimplification of the problem we are trying to resolve. Make sure that you respond in a way that you, and your mother, can be proud of later.

Difficult conversations can present an arsenal of “thwarting ploys,” such as sarcasm, taking offense, hurling accusations, walking away, shouting, overanalyzing, and remaining silent—these are all tactics to catch you off guard and derail the conversation. If you are faced with a ploy, address it by saying, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence (or sarcasm, accusations, shouting).”

Adapt your message and response to align with the other person’s communication style. Then continue to move toward the middle and focus on the outcome you want to achieve in spite of the feelings and the ploys.

Remember that you also have an array of potential responses from passive to aggressive. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to tailor your message in the best possible way so that the other person will hear it. Do you need to speak faster or slower? Add or limit details? Schmooze? Get to the point? Provide an analysis of facts.

Sometimes you stand to have a better chance at communicating if you package your points a way that is most comfortable for the other person to receive it.

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