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Reflections Upon and Analysis of the Book, "Difficult Conversations"
In that so many difficult conversations of an often sensitive and/or confrontational manner spiral into dysfunction in the very first exchange, I found it very helpful to have the aspects of the unspoken conversations responsible for this phenomenon outlined and analyzed at the start of the book. Even though the three conversations outlined are not readily apparent in our higher levels of cognition they have a powerful impact on the emotional undertones of our difficult exchange.
By beginning with the, ”What happened” conversation we see demonstrated a key mistake made before the conversation even begins. The error made is one of solipsism. We approach the conversation having already ascribed a mutual truth regarding the situation that is drawn only from information accessible to ourselves. We have already inferred intentions (often inconsiderate or nefarious ones) to the other person’s actions, and blame as to who was responsible for what went wrong. The mistake here is twofold; first it assumes that both people have access to the same information; second it assumes the objective veracity of our own viewpoint.
The, “feelings conversation,” is one that remains undiscussed, and even worse unanalyzed intrapersonally, probably because of cultural conditioning. Certain emotions, and only those emotions, are allowed to be normatively expressed by each separate gender and thus trying to express an emotion that is not considered within out culturally defined gender domains can feel peculiar and their expression consequently go unpracticed making certain legitimate emotional assertions even more difficult to effect.
Further fueling this emotional avoidance is a fear of succumbing to emotions once they are engaged. To be dominated by or at the whim of emotions, even briefly, carries with it a cultural stigma connected to personal descriptors such as, “moody,” “erratic,” and “unstable.” These are labels with which no one wants to be burdened.
I feel the most important, and the most perniciously influencing, tacit conversation is the one we hold mainly with ourselves as we twist and contort what is being said by the other person. This is the, “Identity Conversation,” and the conclusions we draw from it strike us where we are most vulnerable: in our perceptions of our worth, lovability, and competence.
When what is occurring on these unspoken levels is delineated it is easy to see how a difficult conversation can go from productive to counterproductive very quickly and very easily.
The Stance of Curiosity
So it would seem that in order to sidestep the snares outlined above we must first shed our pretensions to omniscience regarding the experiences and the intentions of the person with which we are trying to converse. This is such a logically basic paradigm shift and yet I think we find it difficult precisely because of the conclusions we have already drawn and repeated to ourselves ad nauseum in the, “What Happened Conversation.”
The essential difference seems to be one of intent. In a conversation that is likely to be unproductive I might try to deliver a message regarding my conclusions about what happened, what your intentions were when it happened, and why you were wrong. In changing my stance to have a learning conversation, a productive conversation lies in appreciating that you have a story about what happened also and in genuinely trying to understand that story: not as more right or wrong than my own but as simply your equally valid personal experience. Without this understanding there can be no foundationally solid subsequent, “Feelings Conversation,” or “Identity Conversation,” and certainly no uncovering of commonly agreed upon ground that might give us a starting point for a resolution to our conflict.
Though trying to omit the, “Feeling Conversations” can be tempting, to ignore it has too great a potential to obfuscate the rest of the conversation and may leave out the heart of why the incident about which you are having a conversation was difficult for you or the other person involved. I’d like to propose, further, that by adding a piece of subjectivity to the conversation we actually add objectivity. To elucidate this point: considering the nebulous nature of reality some disagreement is bound to find its way into the, “What Happened Conversation,” but it’s much harder to argue over someone else’s emotional reaction to what happened. If I say, “This made we feel this way,” it’s very hard for someone else to deny this statement. They may counter with, “You’re too sensitive,” or, “You shouldn’t have felt that way,” but I think it’s more likely that they will react with a caring interest and thus also be more prone to enter the stance of curiosity. It is important to not ascribe intentions or judgments to the actions that led to this state of emotion if this stratagem is to be successful.
In an attempt to quell the “Identity Conversation,” gamboling about in our minds we must be prepared to challenge our own dichotomous thinking as regards our goodness, lovability, and competence and to perhaps reflect upon how such thinking might have originated within us. Was there an influence in our family of origin that makes us regard our identity so precariously? Further, by playing out the conversation in our mind and the tortuous routes it might take we can prepare ourselves for the, “identity quakes,” described. Lastly, we can acknowledge our part in the incident and properly see it as the action of a fallible human-being rather than the inevitable actions of a bad person.
The Mediator Position
This simple approach has tremendous promise for both our personal conflicts and as a profession therapeutic tool. If we are ever to resolve a conflict we must begin by establishing premises that can be mutually agreed upon. In finding this shared perspective we must be cautious to omit our presumption that our way of handling the world is more correct than someone else’s and instead embrace a non-evaluative recognition of interpersonal differences. What can be agreed at this point is actually quite a bit if we are careful with linguistics and in omitting perceived intent and words loaded with connotative value.
We can almost invariably agree that we see things differently on a particular issue, that this issue makes us each feel a certain way, and that it would make us both happier if we could find a way to productively deal with the issue. This is a tremendous start. We have taken a third person stance, extended an invitation toward mutual understanding and stated our intention to work together toward a mutually pleasing resolution.
From this place of eminent promise we can proceed to address the three unspoken conversations more openly and fully with a special emphasis on listening in a constructive way to the other issues concerning what they think has happened, what they are feeling, and what identity issues are being raised for them.
The inclusion of micro-skills such as paraphrasing and reflection of feeling (referred to as acknowledgment of feelings in the text) in this work shows the utility of these skills even in non-clinical settings. The efficacy of paraphrasing both in showing someone that they are indeed being heard and as a means toward clarifying their vantage point along with the accurate empathic mirroring of emotions are essential underpinnings for shared problem solving.
Further advice on how to clarify the intent of your statements in an explicit manner rather relying on someone else to read your subtext in an unrealistically clairvoyant way that comprehends your well-disguised true intentions is very useful. The example in the book of, “Honey there sure is a lot to do around the house this weekend,” representing the subtext, “I miss our time puttering around the house together,” illustrates the core problem with this ambiguous mode of communication. What is desired is simply too deeply obfuscated by indirectness to convey the true intent and meaning buried within the spoken message.
Within these very carefully illustrated and very salient points concerning the hazards surrounding difficult conversations the basic groundwork is laid for the type of dyadic exchange needed to actually solve problems.
The skill of reframing in order to keep the conversation from veering into uselessness along with bringing the other person to a stance of my story is “X” and your story is “Y” (as opposed to one of our stories is right and the other is wrong) is very important during the actual problem solving stage. Understanding that this is a place from which we can better understand each other and compromise to solve our issue can go a long way in promoting a mutual willingness to undertake the somewhat arduous task of solving a problem civilly and in such a way as to satisfy both parties. Removing the motivation to persuade someone to your point of view (an unlikely goal) and realizing that personal interactions can be greatly ameliorated without ostensive or insincere agreements opens up the motivation to work assiduously toward a creative solution.
If agreement on a solution is truly untenable the questions of, “What am I willing to settle for?” and “What are the consequences of not agreeing?” demand answers to the difficult questions of, “Where are my priorities and how much of what I hold dear and feel entitled to am I willing to give up?” This is a very important and logical place to end the book. Not all viewpoints will be compatible, not all parties are willing to capitulate sufficiently, and not all problems are entirely solvable. But realizing these impasses when they arise, asking these difficult questions and following through with the honest conclusions reached can avoid a lot of pain, dysfunction, and frustration. Some issues will remain unresolved despite out best efforts and if that entails the ending of certain associations that may be preferable to the chaotic, often abrasive alternatives.
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations. New York: Penguin Books