Tough Conversations


In life, each of us are faced with tough conversations or conflict. Whether real or perceived, these conversations have the power to transform, hurt or heal. I’m going to assume that your hope is to always achieve the latter, but since outcomes don’t always go the way we intend, let’s think about strategies that move us in positive directions. 

To begin let’s make sure we have the same understanding or definition of conflict. To guide our thinking around this topic, we will define it simply as: a difference in goals. That’s it, nothing good or bad involved, just a difference in goals. With that definition in mind, one of the first things to consider when facing a tough conversation has to do with something only you have control over, which is your communication. If a conflict is a difference in goals, then first you need to ask yourself, “Have I asked what the other person or party’s goals are?” And then, “Have I communicated my goal clearly to them?” 

Taking the time to hear the other person or party’s story first, can do two salient things. First, it helps prevent the walls of defensiveness from going up by allowing them to feel heard. This might seem like a small thing, but don’t underestimate feeling heard because it’s powerful. When someone listens to us our brains go, “Oh, this person cares about me.” This leads to the second possible result of hearing their story: feelings of trust. 

For feelings of trust to occur you must genuinely listen to the goals they are sharing with you. Don’t think about possible responses you might give; instead focus intently on their words and make sure you are understanding their perspective. 

Once they’ve shared their stories or goals, pause and take it deeper. During initial conversations in conflict we tend to hold back, call it self-preservation, but we are tenderly seeking confirmation that this leap of faith will have a soft landing. We ask ourselves if we can be vulnerable. Do we feel safe enough to share our honest thoughts or ideas? We might not yet and will need reassurance. 

So continue encouraging trust with genuine curiosity. Ask relevant questions such as, “How do you believe this will strengthen ________ ?” or “Describe how we might ________ ?” or “I appreciate what you’re saying, since the requirement is ________ , what steps do you think we might take to ensure we attain this?” Having curiosity allows you to gather information as to where they are coming from and if there are any gaps in understanding on their part or yours. Curiosity allows both of you to clarify with a spirit of collaboration versus competition. 

Remember that whomever your tough conversation is with, you are on the same team! You both care about doing your best work, maintaining working relationships, or providing amazing services. Bringing to light differences and then using those differences as opportunities for curiosity and clarification is where transformation and healing take place. 

Loretta Skinner worships at Woods Chapel Blue Springs. With an educational background spanning family development, psychology, communication, and mediation, she is passionate about understanding people and leveraging communication to enhance relationships.