How to face difficult conversations (Part One)

By Stefan Blom 7 April 2020

'Fantasy' by cdd20 for Pixabay

Relationships can sometimes be rocked by arguments. But there are many ways to deal with difficult conversations – fresh directions that help us move out of blame cycles and into peaceful spaces.

Part One of a two-part series

Repetitive and habitual arguments are one of the primary reasons why feuding parties opt to seek out processes of mediation or facilitation, such as couple therapy.

Often, the well-worn fights have been raging for months, even years, with both parties feeling increasingly misunderstood. The power of emotions created by misunderstandings can light up a small town.

The energy generated by troublesome topics can circle through the life of even a good relationship every day, damaging belief in one another and in the relationship. As the topic turns ugly, it changes perceptions to the point where you start to question who you are within the relationship.

Despite the widespread belief that people are not good at talking, we are mostly very good at expressing ourselves.

There’s a lot of support for having “a voice”, but “so much talking” doesn’t necessarily speak to the most critical missing link in our communication: talking with listening.

We seem to be particularly good at talking about what other people have done to us instead of what we are going to do for ourselves or, even better, for each other. We don’t speak and act like we are on the same team, living on the same land.

More than ever, we seem to like to hear the sounds of our voices but struggle to listen to the experiences of a talking partner. We debate, argue, interrupt, evaluate, problem-solve, dominate, distract, gaslight, keep quiet and simply downright fight to be right – actions that we all know do not look or feel like listening.

If you are stuck in a conversation that makes you feel increasingly lost and misunderstood, here are some directions to consider that might take your most sensitive topics in novel directions.

Move past talking about your problems

We like to talk about our problems because we believe it will make us feel better. The problem with only sharing our problems is that it doesn’t open the conversation to new possibilities. It might offer temporary relief but it seldom offers a lasting change.

In therapy, I am constantly reminded that talking about our problems rarely addresses them.

We get tired or saturated by the repetition of the same problem-story. Problem-heavy stories become familiar, frustrating and exhausting, as they feel circular and stuck. They seldom deepen an understanding of two people’s perspectives and offer new perspectives that might be enlightening.

Instead of continuing to talk about your problems in ways that you find hurtful and repetitive, try listening to each other speak about the kinds of conversation you want to have. Take the conversation further and talk about a preferred way of speaking that would reflect what is important for you in a relationship. What kind of relationship do you want to be in? And how do you want to treat each other?

Make sure you have the same relationship ideals. Are you in a relationship where sharing is encouraged, or would you like to keep your thoughts to yourself and pretend? Ask yourself if you want a growing relationship that is built on honesty? Are you getting enough of what you need?

Put each other at ease by speaking about your dreams and desires for your relationship. Be reminded that talking honestly (even if it is hurtful) will not destroy your relationship, but bring you closer.

If you feel like it, take the conversation even deeper. Tell stories about your parents and how they shaped your ideas of relationships. Talk about where your parents got their relationship ideas from. Be curious about where you learned about conflict and how to manage it. Get to know each other better by sharing some of your injuries from childhood and previous relationships that now play out in your adult relationships. Listen, acknowledge what you hear and don’t judge. We all have injuries and judging each other is a waste of precious energy. 

Correct your misunderstandings, check for understandings

At the root of what we call our problems with communication are misunderstandings and assumptions. The spaces in your communication where a lack of understanding lives is most likely filled with assumptions about what the other person is thinking and feeling and not what is true for you. These assumptions are often built by our own projections of another person’s fears but, even if they are not true for you, they can become real stories over time.

With two sides of the same coin – your fears and your judgments – you build a story in your head without any real communication with the people involved.

Even after many sessions, you might feel that therapy has turned into a “you said – I said” battle. To really talk and listen, you need to get away from the finger-pointing cycles and focus on understanding someone’s experience that is most likely different from yours.

Once you’ve listed your problems and given your problem-stories some time, stop talking about them and check for understandings. Listen out for where you both feel understood and where some reciprocal understanding is still needed.

Logically, we might believe that every person is different and therefore has very unique experiences of the same world. But we seem to struggle to translate this belief into new behaviour. Even if we know it is true intellectually, we find it hard to sit back and listen, acknowledge and accept another’s experience as valid for them. The need of one’s ego to be right gets in the way of a good conversation.

If you can get past the basics, like not interrupting and listening with interest and attention, you can deepen the experience of listening through sharing your understanding. Tell each other what you hear and don’t judge each other for it.

It is all about sending messages that you truly want to understand and hearing the other person’s point of view. Even if you don’t share the same view, aim to become more relaxed and comfortable about a different point of view.

See the emotions

We tend to show how hurt we are through the way we speak. If your tone or volume is not a reflection of your intention to disrespect your talking partner, you must work on matching your tone with your intent. We get so stuck on the use of “unacceptable” tone and volume that we forget to see that tone and volume are expressions of emotions.

We demonstrate our emotions, like being angry, upset and hurt, through our responses. In other words, we act out our emotions or frustrations, rather than speaking about them. When you drop a sensitive, and most likely repetitive, topic into a conversation and your tone demonstrates your frustration, then your frustrated tone becomes the focus rather than the message. The topic gets lost when met with equal measures of frustration.

“I don’t like what you said and especially how you said it, so I will show you how this makes me feel by demonstrating what I feel I received.”

This might seem like a very natural human reaction, but this way of meeting frustration with more frustration seldom leads to a peaceful place.

Instead of getting into an argument about unacceptable tone or volume, I invite parties to think about the meanings behind tone or volume and to see the emotions fuelling them.

A fiery tone is often a reflection of the frustrations caused by not being listened to for a long time. Screaming might be the result of a build-up of emotions after having kept quiet for too long. It’s no wonder that out-of-control tone or volume is one of the most injurious aspects of ugly fights and, sadly, it distracts you from the core messages and emotions.

As we don’t tend to speak calmly about our emotional upsets, but demonstrate them through the way we speak, it is hard to shift a highly emotional fight to a calmer conversation about emotions. We don’t only share our thoughts, we also show our feelings.

Our thoughts are coated in emotional expression and both parts need listening to. Therefore, it’s important not to get stuck on the way we talk, but rather to speak about the emotions that are represented by our frustrated and frustrating tones. Instead of expressing your frustrations through tone and volume, speak about why you are upset or frustrated or hurt.

Of course, you always have a responsibility to watch your tone and keep the volume down, but this can be really hard if you’re angry or upset. This is at the core of any difficult argument: to not let the tone or volume distract you from your important points of view.

Talk about what you will do differently

Take ownership of your part in the unhappiness of your relationship. Taking ownership is not about shaming and blaming. You don’t have to bring a list of your wrongdoings. Rather, speak with deep insight and understanding of how your choice of behaviour is affecting your significant other. Only then will you have hope.

It’s hard to move away from a blaming dynamic, which sounds like: “You did this … but you also did that.”

In most cases, we don’t just absorb the words and chew on them with reflection; we almost naturally go into protection and defence mode.

If you don’t have the skills, and maybe the mindset, to listen, acknowledge, take ownership and hopefully grow from the conversation, your relationship can quickly feel like a pointless power struggle. Two parties keeping score of who did what and when they did it is an exhausting exercise that does not provide relief. (You are in the baby stages of listening.)

The question to ask yourself in a routine argument is: What do I take responsibility for? Until both parties look at what they can do differently to bring about a new outcome, the argument is likely to remain circular and escalate quickly. Not taking ownership can be like a red rag to a bull and is one of the main reasons that conversations escalate into fights. We amplify in order to make sure that the other party not only hears us, but also that they take responsibility for their part in the story. As we can’t get another person to do what we want, we can only listen and invite them into a space of accountability by asking questions and expressing what we would like.

What can I contribute that will make our relationship better?

How can we support each other in making the changes we need?

How can I support you to make this happen?

A conversation with some understanding and ownership is communication with direction.

Speak about who you are

If the way you are speaking and not listening is not a reflection of who you are or want to be, get to know who you are beneath what you say. Speak about who you are as human beings and how you would like to be in each other’s worlds.

This is a conversation far away from talking about your problems, as you talk about where you are and how you are really doing. It is not always so useful to know who you are, but it can be grounding to start talking about where you are at.

Share what is important to you at this point in your life, how you want to live and be in relationships. Talk and listen to each other’s struggles and stresses and how they might stand in the way of you being true to yourself. Be interested in who you are without trying to comment or change each other.

Talking about your authentic selves can deepen your understanding of what is relevant and meaningful to you. There is no need to debate what is said. This is a process of simply listening and acknowledging each other for who you are or where you at, without evaluations or labels.

Know when to stop speaking

In the over-emphasis on talking we forget that talking about heavy things needs a boundary. Don’t spoil your every moment with serious business and protect your other relationship experiences, such as enjoyment, by identifying when and how would be a good way to speak.

Identify your specific places and times for talking and keep your dates clean in order to stay connected. Learn to set time aside for your most challenging topics and limit the timespan of these conversations. Sensitive issues require a lot of reflection, so learn to speak over time rather than “marathon” through a painful conversation.

Enjoyment is just one of life’s experiences that makes it worth living and the more you have of them the better you feel. Think of other experiences that bring you closer and that you both enjoy and mix them in with some hard talking with listening. DM/ML

Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian), published by Human & Rousseau.


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