Before we start a difficult conversation there are things we can do to help things go more smoothly.

Is it worth it?

Before we start the conversation we need to decide if it is worth having the conversation at all. All difficult conversations involve risk and reward and we need to make a judgement. We could ask ourselves;

  • What might happen if the conversation goes badly or well?
  • What is the current situation? Is it stable, getting worse or better?
  • Who is involved? How might they react?
  • How could it affect our relationship?
  • How would having, not having, the conversation affect me, and you?

For some difficult conversations we don't have time to decide at length if they are worth having, they unfold quickly and we tend to react, without the opportunity to consider and respond.

If you are unsure whether to tackle a conflict or leave things as they are consider “What will happen if I do nothing?” In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott makes the point you get what you tolerate. Einstein is quoted as defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” or putting it a different way if you do the same, you get the same. So, if you don't do something to tackle a conflict, don't expect the situation to get better.

What is the purpose?

Having a clear picture of what the dialogue's purpose is helps clarify and focus it. Purposes that do not work are;

  • To prove that I am right
  • To thrash out what are the correct facts

Purposes that work well are;

  • Learning their story
  • Expressing your views and feelings
  • Problem solving together

What are your goals?

It is a good idea to have one or more goals in mind for your dialogue.

  • What do you expect to achieve in your dialogue?
  • Is this the only conversation you expect to have, or is it likely to be the first of a number of dialogues?
  • Do you have minimum things you would like to achieve and if things go well do you have follow on goals?

Which type of dialogue?

The type of dialogue you use depends on circumstances, the level of conflict and how long the conflict has been going on. Where you have some relationship with a person and you both know how to conduct a dialogue, you may opt for one-to-one dialogue. Where you don't know the person well and neither of you understands the dialogue process then you may benefit from a facilitated dialogue. Where more than two people are involved it is likely you will need a facilitated group dialogue.

One-to-one dialogue

One-to-one dialogue is where two people carry out the dialogue without a facilitator. This can work where;

  • the people know each other well
  • both understand the restorative dialogue process
  • the level of conflict is low and has not simmered over time

Facilitated dialogue

Facilitated dialogue is where a facilitator is used to manage the dialogue process. The facilitator is neutral and does not take sides, their focus is on the dialogue process. A facilitator is usually needed where;

  • the people do not know each other well
  • they have little, or no, understanding of the dialogue process
  • the level of conflict is high or has simmered over a period of time

A facilitated dialogue is not a mediation. There is no agreement to be bound by the decision of a third party.

Facilitated group dialogue

A facilitated group dialogue is similar to a facilitated dialogue except that more people are involved. When working with a group the process tends to be more formal and greater time is spent upfront to develop the environment for success.

Creating a safe space

Time and Location

Setting a time and location for the dialogue that is convenient for all involved helps people have confidence that their needs are being considered. It is also important to choose a neutral location so that no-one is seen as being given preferential treatment.

Setting expectations

Most people will not have experienced the dialogue process, so taking time work out how the process will work can help alleviate concerns. If the dialogue is to be facilitated, this is part of the role of the facilitator. The things that need to be considered are described in the page on working in a circle and in a facilitated dialogue include;

  • Meeting the participants-to-one
  • Explaining the dialogue process
  • Exploring what values to bring to the dialogue
  • Discussing what behaviours will help
  • Drafting guidelines to use during the dialogue

In a dialogue that does not use a facilitator these items may seem unnecessary. However, it may be useful to simply consider how the conversation might work best before looking at the issue itself. This might be as simple as;

  • You share your views
  • I'll share mine
  • Work out where we agree and where we differ
  • Share ideas of how we can make things better

Expressing hopes and concerns

Expressing hopes and concerns about a situation is useful. Understanding your hopes and concerns about having the conversation helps your preparation. Expressing these and asking about the hopes and concerns of the other person also helps in the early stages of a conversation and contributes to building trust. You are showing that you care about what might be worrying the other person.

Agreeing the guidelines

An important part the dialogue process is drawing up and agreeing a set of guidelines that form the foundation of the dialogue. These are usually based on common values such as openness, honesty and fairness. The guidelines articulate how participants will conduct themselves and treat one another. Initial drafting of guidelines can be done as part of the preparation or developed from scratch during the dialogue. The guidelines are not cast in stone and can be amended at any time. They also act as touchstone that can be revisited to test if a dialogue is operating as expected.

Sample of Basic Guidelines

  1. Recognise the power of deep listening. Listen to understand the other's point of view. Try to listen more than you speak.
  2. Respect others and refuse to engage in name-calling.
  3. Speak about personal experiences. Start sentences with “I” rather than “You”.
  4. Minimise interruptions and distractions. Allow people to finish what they are saying without interruption or with side talk between other participants.
  5. Maintain confidentiality. Outside the group participants may discuss what was said, but not who said it.

Introduction | Handling the trigger | 1. Preparation | 2. Dialogue | 3. Finding solutions | 4. Follow up


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