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Talking Tough

6 min

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In our last issue, we talked about the Three Errors:

We think we know what others intend but don't.

We think others know what we intend, but they don't.

We attribute the actions of others to character; we attribute our own to context.

These three biases drive us towards conflict. They allow us to project intentions onto other people, creating a fantasy world in which we are always the hero, never the villain.

This week, we discuss a step-by-step process for short-circuiting this tendency and avoiding the Three Errors:

Having tough conversations with people.

I know, right?

I'll be the first to admit: I'm terrible at this. I tend to avoid conflict, either taking on too much responsibility ("this is all my fault, I'll get better") or not enough ("they're doing this because they hate me, I'm the victim.")

Directly communicating to people when the stakes are high drives an icepick of anxiety straight into my chest. So, if it makes you nervous consider, that you're not alone.

Regardless, the ability to have effective conversations about difficult topics is highly correlated with success and happiness. There is no other skill as important to your long-term well-being.

What follows is a very short and to-the-point summary of the book Crucial Conversations, which I highly recommend picking up if this is something you want to get better at.

How to Have Difficult Conversations: a Very Short 9-Step Guide

Step One: Go in with the right mindset.

If you want your conversation to be effective - meaning, to change your outcomes, rather than simply make yourself feel good - you MUST enter with the right mindset.

That is:

The person with whom I am in conflict is rational and means well.

Engaging with this thought at the forefront can often be enough to completely change the trajectory of a conversation. It is a game-changer.

Step Two: Know your critical question.

Before you start talking, you need to know your critical question.

A critical question informs everything you do in the course of your conversation. It's your north star.

A critical question is composed of:

What do you want for this relationship, and

What you don't.

You can then combine these elements to get something in this format:

How do I achieve (what I want from this relationship), without (what I don't)?

For example, let's say you're having a tough conversation with your partner.

What you want in this context might be for your partner to stop irritating you in some way...

And what you don't want might be to alienate them or to make them pull away from you.

You would then enter the conversation with this question firmly in mind:

"How can I get my partner to stop irritating me, without making them pull away?"

Ask, and you shall receive. Posing difficult questions to ourselves puts our minds to work trying to find an answer which meets our criteria.

Step Three: Interpret "negative responses" as feeling unsafe.

It's very possible - inevitable, even - that, despite all your goodwill, someone will respond negatively.

They might verbally attack you, belittle you, or argue in bad faith.

To prevent yourself from becoming emotional, it's critical to view all such responses as a perceived lack of safety.

People lash out when they are hurt, confused, or feel threatened. This has more to do with them than it does with you. When you perceive someone reacting in this way, it's time to stop and re-establish a sense of personal safety.

You could do this by sincerely apologizing if they took something the wrong way. Or, you could say something like:

"I'm noticing that our conversation's getting a little heated. I wanted to take a step back for a moment and just reiterate - I'm not here to attack you, and I certainly don't want you to feel threatened in any way. Could we work on that for a bit before continuing?"

People are so unaccustomed to feeling safe during these conversations that any attempt to do so will often be met by befuddlement. Stick with it.

Step Four: Establish a mutual purpose.

Crucial conversations often come about due to disagreements of one kind or another. It can be powerful to establish a common goal for the conversation early on, something that everyone can get on board with.

A mutual purpose could simply be to "make sure everyone feels heard." Or, it could be something like "make sure we understand each other's position."

Note that the goal can't always be to determine a winner, because it wouldn't be mutual.

What's a goal for the conversation that would make everyone happy if it were achieved?

Establish this explicitly, upfront. Know what you're looking to do, and make sure the other party agrees. If you don't agree, collaborate until you find something everyone likes.

Step Five: Share your facts.

When it comes time to layout your side, always start with facts.

This means stripping out all thoughts about other people's intent and focusing only on the objective. Imagine you're a security camera, dispassionately recording only physical interactions. What would you have seen? What are the things no one could debate?

"When I came yesterday, you were using your phone. When I said hi to you, you didn't look up right away." much better than:

"You're always on your phone; you ignored me again last night!"

Step Six: Tell your story

Once you've laid out your facts, talk about how you interpreted those facts - a.k.a., your story.

It's important to note that your story is just that: yours. It's one possible interpretation of the world, filtered through your innumerable biases and cognitive distortions. While it may feel true for you, it is no more "True" with a capital "T" than anyone else's.

Keep this focused on YOU and YOUR emotions, not anyone else's intentions. Use "I feel/I felt" liberally.

To use the example above:

"When I came yesterday, you were using your phone. When I said hi to you, you didn't look up right away...when I saw that, I felt. hurt. I felt like you were ignoring me."

Step Seven: Ask for others’ paths.

Because our story is just one of many, we want to elicit the stories of others to more fully understand our world.

Whenever you make a statement about your feelings, make sure to directly ask for the other person's take as well.

"When I came yesterday, you were using your phone. When I said hi to you, you didn't look up right away...when I saw that, I felt. hurt. I felt like you were ignoring me. Was that what was happening?"

Step Eight: Talk tentatively.

People interpret certainty as implying that they must be wrong, mistaken, or deluded. Pushing hard always causes pushback.

To avoid this, speak tentatively; make sure you communicate that your story is just one of many, that you don't have a monopoly on the truth, and that your goal is to learn more about the world, not force your views on everyone else.

Use phrases like "I think," "I felt," "Sometimes," etc. Avoid words like "never," "always," and so on.

This has the benefit of making you more accurate because absolutist statements are seldom true. :-)

Step Nine: Encourage testing.

When it comes time to figure out what to DO about things, encourage testing. Nothing needs to be set in stone. Instead, can you take a small step in a direction that meets everyone's needs and see how it goes?

"When I came yesterday, you were using your phone. When I said hi to you, you didn't look up right away...when I saw that, I felt. hurt. I felt like you were ignoring me. Was that what was happening?... I was wondering if you'd be willing to experiment with me. What about, when we come home, we each agree to put our phones away for 15 minutes and just talk? We can do it for a week, and then see how we feel about it. Would that work for you?"

...and that's it.

The process is simple and straightforward, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

In my experience, the single hardest aspect of having crucial conversations is controlling your own emotions. It's SO easy to get caught up in perceived slights and start lashing out before you're even fully aware of what you're doing.

However, if you can master this skill - or even get marginally better at it - you will find yourself solving problems that seemed unsolvable.

It truly is the secret to lasting relationships, personal power, and more.

Give it a shot. Let me know how it goes.




Why Is ‘Bob’s Burgers’ So Freakishly Lovable? This Guy.

A really great profile on Loren Bouchard, who's been behind three of my favorite shows: Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, Home Movies, and Bob's Burger.

I used to watch Dr. Katz every day after school. Definitely a show that lives rent-free in my head. Home Movies was much the same, and doesn't get enough love.

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