It’s Time We Have a Talk: Difficult Conversations and Keeping Good Relationships

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jim Reacts:

It has become more challenging to communicate effectively with people in the last couple of years. It is sad how the above quote still resonates today.

People will ask, “How did we get here?” But a look at our nation’s history suggests that little has changed. People tend to fear what they don’t know or don’t understand and are often unwilling to consider someone else’s perspective. As a result, too many of us recoil from venturing outside our comfort zones. The fear of change, the fear of the unknown, tends to hold people back.

I’m no stranger to difficult conversations: one could say my professional approach often prompted such exchanges! As a local emergency manager, after attending multiple professional conferences and being disturbed by the “pablum-like” content of peer presentations, I wrote an article for the International Association of Emergency Managers Bulletin (in August 2003) entitled “How Come We Never Argue.” The article contended that we would use our time more productively if we debated current professional issues, limiting the “happy-talk” that all too often dominated discussions. The contention that conferences were a good time to “let off steam” seemed to prove my point: said “steam” was usually just hot air!

Disputes over policy or values do not have to be disagreeably conducted, but it does take both sides to adhere to the principles of respectful dialogue. Early in my professional life, working at a private college in Illinois, I was introduced to the concept of “conflict management” – the guiding principle, adaptable to almost any situation, is that most conflict is value conflict. Recognizing that the “other” party to the argument might have a “value” of their own to defend is an excellent first step to resolving said conflict – “understanding” is not the same as “acquiescing” to another’s point of view but can be a beginning in resolving disagreements.

Sharing perspectives on essential matters can be stressful unless it occurs in an environment where opposing views are welcomed. Certainly, some points of disagreement cannot be resolved – there are gaps in ethics, or some might say morality that may be insurmountable. In my monthly blog, “Emergency Management Once Removed,” I increasingly focus on such tipping points. Still, honest acceptance of what the “other side” values can improve one’s understanding of the motivations behind the positions in dispute.

Two professional conferences that I attended were devoted to a direct, civil, and potentially volatile subject to illustrate this (and perhaps explain the inspiration for “How Come…”). In Oklahoma City in 2000, the Memorial’s dedication to the victims of the Murrah Building bombing attracted terrorism experts from all over the world to debate and critique each other’s presentations – sometimes sharply, but always civilly. Their common value was to prevent or mitigate the global threat of terrorism, whatever other

professional or national differences intruded. In Sri Lanka in 2003, I keynoted an international disaster mitigation conference: the focus was on governmental or cultural obstacles to implementing prudent disaster mitigation measures. Again, the discussion centered on identifying values in common before analyzing the values in conflict and the barriers to the desired outcome.

Both conferences promoted spirited yet civil debates: no one went away angry, and some of us left a little wiser! There is nothing to fear from open, civil dialogue about critical issues. Disagreements are healthy if they are honestly presented, and flaws in one’s thinking can be corrected if someone makes a sound counterargument. Disagreements, bared in good faith, need not be disagreeably presented or received.

Kellie Reacts:

Difficult conversations, unfortunately, are a part of life. We all experienced it once or twice. Sometimes relationships do reach an end. For example, a friend of yours said something offensive or a colleague has different values than you. These types of conversations are not easy to have and can get out of hand if not approached delicately. Of course, people want their voices to be heard and valued. However, it is essential to remember that being respectful of what others bring to the conversation can impact the overall structure and outcome of the conversation.

In today’s social climate, stress is high, and conversations involving race, diversity, equity, and inclusion are more important than ever. But, unfortunately, they can also lead to conflict amongst those with differing opinions.

So, how does one go about having difficult conversations?

Here are some tips on making a difficult conversation a productive one:

1. Thoughtfully Prepare ahead of Time:
Taking the time to prep ahead of the conversation can help avoid the outcome of a damaging encounter and feelings of getting hurt. Exchanges do not need to be mapped out word for word. But it is essential to be mindful of your overall intent. Ask yourself what the goal of the conversation is? Please don’t allow anyone to feel like they are being caught off guard.

2. Stay Present and Remain Calm:
To have a productive conversation, one must give their undivided attention. Whether the dialogue is in person or on Zoom, put away items that distract you. Remember, having a difficult conversation can turn into a healthy discussion. Avoid the urge to “win” the conversation. Suspend any judgment and speak with an open mind and heart.

3. Get Your Message Across and Let the Other Party Do the Same:
Make sure your intentions and message are clear. It is okay to be literal in talking about what bothers you. For instance, you can say, “I feel [feeling], when you do [X], because, for me, it would be better if [….]. An example would be, “I feel sad when you talk down to me in a condescending way because, for me, it would be better if you talked to me with the same respect I give you.” It is crucial not to interrupt or lessen the other person’s perspectives.

4. Be An Active Listener:
To be an effective active listener starts with making sure the world around you is turned off. That means closing the door, shutting off the computer, and shutting off the phone. Be sure to give the person you are conversing with your undivided attention. Also, it is okay to ask questions when you need clarification. For example, “I’m not sure I fully understand, can you please say it differently?” or “Do I have this right? I think you are saying….” This shows that you want to get the whole story and are fully listening.

Emotions are bound to run high when partaking in difficult conversations. That is okay. Remember, it takes a lot of courage for a person even to take the initiative to begin such a conversation. It is not always easy to talk about what is bothering you. If any conversation you have gets heated, it is perfectly acceptable and okay to ask for a break or reconvene at another time. Sometimes, taking the time to “sleep on it” can help see an outcome or solution to the problem.


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