An Introduction to Handling Difficult Conversations

What is a difficult conversation?

A difficult conversation is simply one that involves, or might involve, an element of conflict or disagreement. It can be between two people, or involve a group of people. It can be about something that happens in the moment or builds up over time.

The 'seeds of conflict' are sown in our day-to-day interactions

Probably every day we find ourselves in situations where we see things differently to another person.

At times this doesn't matter a great deal. We have a good relationship with that person and part of our way of interacting is to have a difference of opinion. Because we get on with them, we don't always have to agree with their views.

At other times, we find ourselves in unexpected and more difficult situations. This might be the result of a minor difference or misunderstanding, but for some reason this offends us in some way and, before we know it, we react – and find ourselves in a difficulty.

In some situations, we can walk away, but in others we can't. Conflicts develop in families, organisations and communities, situations where it is much more difficult to walk away. These conflicts can simmer in the background. More often than not, every so often they will flare up. Even if they die down again, the underlying causes remain. At any time another flare up is possible.

What makes these conversations difficult?

It is useful to understand what causes disagreement and conflict. Why do we all find certain conversations difficult? Why is that some situations seem to make us irritable and argumentative? There are two main aspects to this answer:

  • the patterns of thinking and behaviour we have developed over our lifetime, and
  • our in-built tendency to react emotionally.

Patterns of thinking and behaviour

One useful way to look at this is through the lens of human evolution and development. This suggests we are all born with certain patterns of behaviour – innate behaviour. Babies smile when they are smiled at and up to the age of six months grip a finger that is placed into their hand. These are primitive behaviours that help us to survive – in the case of babies smiling, this helps to bond with their mothers; the gripping of that finger is an instinct left over from when our primate ancestors were carried on their mothers’ back, so needed to be able to cling onto any available support.

As we grow, we develop ways of behaving and thinking based on our experiences and what we are taught in our family, at school, in our communities, and at work and play.

Our minds have evolved to build templates from our experiences for use in gauging future experiences. We learn to recognise things by how they look, sound, smell, feel, and taste. Much of what we do relies on us recognising such patterns and acting on them. Our minds have become incredibly efficient at doing this. One consequence of this is that it also makes us lazy when it comes to consciously examining the matching of external patterns to internal templates.

Some of the templates can be simple, such as in the words or letters that enable us to read and write. They can also be very sophisticated and multi-dimensional. We are able to recognise people we know well not just by how they look but also by how they move, how they sound, and maybe even by how they smell. When our minds receive fresh information, we automatically compare this against our templates, identifying what we are sensing to match this against the templates. This then dictates how we react to the situation.

We are able to do this very quickly because we can check multiple patterns at the same time, often bypassing the conscious mind altogether. This pattern recognition process takes place in many different parts of the brain. According to Professor Steve Peters, two, in particular, are responsible for our survival and success – Peters refers to one as the primitive, emotional mind, or as he calls it, the chimp mind, and the other the sociable, human mind. More of this shortly.

Another aspect of this is that because we are exposed to enormous amounts of information in every waking moment, we have evolved ways to quickly filter out the things that we can safely ignore to focus on the ones that we need to act on.

However, this tendency to follow short cuts can mean that we develop blind spots, or cognitive biases, to give this its psychological term. Wikipedia provides this extensive list of cognitive biases. An example of one bias that has an impact on our interaction with others is ‘confirmation bias’. This is our tendency to readily accept information that agrees with a current template and to discount information that in some way contradicts it. This article describes 10 cognitive biases that distort our thinking, including confirmation bias.

Few of us spend time consciously examining and questioning our templates and the evidence we have collected to support them – but we do know our views on a subject, what our experiences have been, and the values and beliefs we hold. These are all interlocking templates.

The good news is that if we wish to get better at handling disagreement and conflict, we do something to change our templates. It was once thought that much of how we are, how we behave, and how we think is totally ingrained in us in childhood and this, once engrained, could not be changed. However, advances in neuroscience have established that the brain is much more plastic than originally believed and can change throughout our lives. This understanding is the basis of most modern therapy.

Reacting emotionally

When we are in strong disagreement or severe conflict with someone, it is almost impossible not to react emotionally. But we should not be too hard on ourselves over our failure to curb our emotions. Emotional responses and gut reactions are part of our DNA – our ancestors relied on responses that bypass our conscious brain in order to survive.

Many of these reactions are quick and strong because they are triggered from templates stored in the primitive, emotional mind, located in the limbic region of the brain. The limbic region developed millions of years ago and is common to all animals. It is responsible for keeping us alive. It is a part of the brain that evolved long before our ancestors could be recognised as homo sapiens, or even primates. It is very quick and strong. It needed to be. Our ancestors’ survival relied on quick reactions – they needed to know whether or not what they saw or heard was a potential source of food or a sign that they might be about to become a predator’s next meal.

The other part of our brain that we use during difficult conversations is the sociable, human mind, located in the neocortex region of the brain, particularly that part located in the prefrontal cortex. In evolutionary terms, this is a much later development and is thought to be closely linked to our overwhelming success as a species. This part of our mind is responsible for such things as rational thought, planning, and empathy, the things that enable us to be part of larger social groups

Our ancestors’ survival relied on recognising danger and reacting in one of three ways; Fight, Flight or Freeze. These reactions are triggered by a part of the brain within the limbic region called the amygdala and are incredibly strong and fast. They can be so fast that we are not aware that we have reacted to something for up to 1.5 seconds after we have reacted.

In extreme cases, we may never be aware of what we have done. We don’t have time to think, so our mind does not call on our higher processing powers to deal with the situation, as this would just slow things down. In these situations, things become very black and white – survive or die, fight or flight.

In our modern lives, we are less likely to be in physical danger, but research has shown that the same parts of the mind are to a lesser extent also involved during social situations. The emotional mind is on high alert looking for potential threats, and can easily react accordingly. When we perceive a threat, our emotional mind reacts first and being stronger overpowers the social mind. Our thinking becomes ‘black and white’.

'Black and white thinking' is used in the Human Givens approach as an way to refer to the psychological term 'cognitive distortions'. Black and white thinking means that we are no longer able to see the subtle shades of grey between the extremes. It becomes a case of “I am right and you are wrong.” This makes us unable to see the truth – that most situations are rarely all good or all bad. The result is that disagreement leads to unhealthy argument and unwanted conflict. We might go as far as to say that reacting emotionally often makes us think stupidly, because we are not using the parts of the mind that are designed to help us navigate tricky social situations.

How can we go about having difficult conversations?

So, if we accept that we store our experiences and the way we behave and think as templates – templates unique to each individual – and that we all too readily react when we trigger a template stored in the emotional mind, what can we do to handle threat situations better? One of the most useful things we can do is to listen – specifically, to listen to understand.

Listening to understand

In our everyday conversations, most of us often listen to respond, not to understand. It seems to be the default mode for the majority of people. This is not the type of listening that helps deal with conflict. We need to abandon our normal habits, focus on the speaker and maintain a sense of curiosity. Usually, we are so keen to get our point of view across that we take the first opportunity to jump in and make what we see as our contribution to keep the conversation going.

Something magical happens when we suspend our normal way of listening, give the speaker our full attention, and wait until they have fully shared their experience, opinion or idea. Doing so relieves the person talking of the need to cram what they want to say into a limited amount of time. This frees them to express themselves at a comfortable pace in the knowledge that they are not going to be cut short because they will be interrupted, or the conversation will get diverted onto another subject if they pause.

Providing this sense of space to speak means that the speaker has a chance to hear what they are saying. It is not uncommon for the person talking to later say such things as, “I heard myself saying … that was when I realised…”. The speaker will often change what they think once they have spoken it out, upon realising that what they had said is not what they really meant or really wanted to say. The space and time given to the person talking thus allows them to refine their views and perspectives.

Listening to another person has a positive effect on both parties during a difficult conversation. It fulfils a basic human need to be heard. It also provides space for the person listening to reflect. Each time our basic needs are fulfilled it creates a positive reaction for us that makes us feel good and builds trust. More on this later.

A simple framework for handling a difficult conversation

There are things we can do before a conversation becomes difficult and during the conversation itself.

We can prevent a conversation turning into an argument by knowing how to respond in ways that lessen the chances of conflict arising and preparing the ground for a difficult conversation.

At the time the conversation takes place, we can become better at handling things by being aware of what is happening to us and by using approaches that can help diffuse the potential for conflict.

In effect, what we are doing is to create new templates that we can turn to in a potentially difficult situation. This can include replacing an emotional reaction with one that is not emotional – a response rather than a reaction. And if we don’t react emotionally, then we can access our social mind to use templates that can help to calm the situation. Of course, this all sounds easy, in practice, and in the heat of the moment, it can prove challenging even for the best of us. The good news is that with practice we can all become better at it.

Before

At times conflict flares up when we least expect it. At other times, we may be aware of underlying tensions and know that a flare up could happen at any time. Sometimes a conflict simmers, eating away at relationships and eroding trust, like rust eats away at bare metal.

So, in such situations, what can we do? In the case of a flare up, we can prepare. The objective is to create a plan, or template, we can use in this situation. We’ve called this the 3Ps – Pause, Prepare, Postpone.

Pause

The purpose of Pause is to check our frame of mind and that of the person we are interacting with.

The pause is to remind us that it is very easy for us to react emotionally, which is not going to help the situation. The old adage of counting to 10 is a useful one, an idea that is backed up by neuroscience. If something triggers us to react emotionally, then a chemical called cortisol is released into the brain and the body is primed, ready us for action. Our muscles tense and our heart rate increases. We get ready to fight, freeze, or flee. However, this flood of cortisol is temporary and starts to subside after around 12 seconds. Counting to 10 will therefore help to cross this hurdle and enable us to feel a little calmer.

This short pause is only the first step: it only helps us not to react immediately. Taking a longer pause gives us an opportunity to consider the emotional state of the other person. When dealing with a flare up, the other person is likely to also be reacting emotionally, just as we are. This is the secret ingredient to ignite the fire: emotional mirroring. This makes a productive conversation highly unlikely.

It is also worth bearing in mind that we cannot control the state of mind of the other person. However, we can control our own reaction, by pausing and then switching to a planned template.

Only once the other person has finished reacting emotionally, are we able to connect with their social mind. This means we need to wait for their emotional mind to calm and their social mind to contribute.

The is s why almost all approaches to resolving conflict start with listening.

Pausing is not enough. Although our initial short pause will help prevent our own reaction, it can take much longer for our emotional mind to subside and for the social mind of the other person to gain control. There is no rule for how long this can be. Sometimes it can take as much as 15 minutes or more, sometimes longer.

Taking this long pause and listening to the other person also provides us with the opportunity to consider the importance of whether or not to continue with the conversation. When we take a long-term view, we can see that some things that seem to be very important at the time, with hindsight prove to be much less so. Few things really matter as much as them seem to at the time. So, if we are able to put the current situation into perspective, we might come to the conclusion that it is not worth having the conversation at all. Once we have listened to the other person and they have had their say, we might acknowledge what they have said and simply conclude the conversation. Walking away from conflict is often the best course of action.

There is one major caveat to this, of course – some conversations really are important. Not engaging with such conversations, when they form part of a pattern of conflicts that contribute to a larger, more significant issue, can affect and undermine one-to-one relationships and the wider community.

Postpone

It is quite likely that you don’t have time to spend on an unexpected difficult conversation or that you are not in the right frame of mind to have the conversation at that moment.

In this situation, having got over the initial emotional reaction, the best course of action is often to postpone having the conversation. It’s important to acknowledge you have heard what the other person has said and that the conversation needs to happen. The next step is to arrange a follow up conversation – and make sure that it is done. Nothing erodes trust more than agreeing to do something and then not doing it.

Prepare

In some situations, we have not had time to prepare and are unable to avoid an awkward situation that might otherwise be best avoided. However, if we are able to take a pause and postpone the conversation, we then have the opportunity to prepare. This will greatly improve the chances of a positive outcome being achieved. As part of preparing we can ask ourselves the following questions.

What is my motivation for having this conversation?

This is an important question to ask yourself – why am I having the conversation? Too often we find that the real reason is to persuade others that our views are the right ones and that they should think as we do. This is a form of emotional black and white thinking and will hinder constructive conversation. We would be better off not having the conversation, unless we can start to think in terms of the greys that lay somewhere between. Only then will we have the motivation to understand the viewpoint of the other person and the subtleties of the situation.

Am I the best person to have this conversation?

Some of us are members of communities. Some work with colleagues. Many of us have siblings. It might be that you are not the best or most appropriate person to hold the conversation. Is there someone who might be better placed than you to do so? You might conclude this is the case once you have considered your own motivation. This might lead you to believe that you do not need to have the conversation at all, or that someone else is better placed than you to deal with the situation.

It might also be the case that others need to be involved since their viewpoints need to be taken into consideration.

How can we build trust before and during the conversation?

Trust is an essential ingredient for a productive conversation. If we are aiming to improve a relationship, then greater trust is a valid outcome for a conversation.

We can focus on this prior to the actual conversation by working out how we would like to conduct the conversation, what behaviours and values we would like to bring to the conversation, and expressing concerns and hopes. This can be done individually or collectively.

These steps are more common when a conversation involves a group of people or is facilitated by a third person. We are most prepared to do this when the level of conflict is high. In such situations, pre-meetings are required to hear the views of each person or sub-group. This is the pre-cursor to inviting these individuals to join the group conversation.

During

When conducting a difficult conversation, it is useful to have planned a rough roadmap of what needs to be covered and in what order. In practice, the conversation is likely to bounce backwards and forwards. The roadmap will nevertheless be helpful in providing an overall picture or checklist of the important things that need to be covered. There are three sections to our roadmap: what happened, our feelings and needs, and the roles people play..

What happened

When having a difficult conversation, most people start with what happened. This is often the easiest place to start, after all, those involved have witnessed the event, all remember what happened. But this is not the case: we don’t remember everything that has happened, although we do remember what we think happened, what we think about what happened, and what aspects we have focused on.

We experience everything through a personal lens built from our individual templates. This lens is something that includes our experiences, values, beliefs, viewpoints, wants and needs. It is always a lens that is far from perfect – our cognitive biases distort and block information. And if information does get through, we have a tendency to use this to support our views and to ignore anything that might contradict them.

Focus on experiences

Focusing on experiences, both yours and those of the other person(s), helps to encourage dialogue, moving the focus away from what people think to what they believe and the judgements they are making. Doing so will help you, and the others, to consider what it is in your life and upbringing that has led you to hold the values you do, the perspective you take, and your worldview. We all have different backgrounds, so each and every person's views are in some ways different to each other. We therefore need to understand what it is that we see in the same way as the other person(s) and where our experiences, and views, differ.

We don’t have the full picture

In any conversation, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, some things are known, some are partially known, and others are hidden. A conversation is all too often a bit like looking at a large painting hung high on the wall, in the dark, using a small and inadequate torch. We can see the picture in the centre of the beam quite clearly. As we look towards the edge of the beam, things are not quite so clear, but we can nonetheless make out that there is something there. And beyond the beam, there is darkness, even though we can see that we have not seen the edge of the picture.

Conversations are a bit more tricky than that, as we don't have a nice clean edge to what is relevant. We have to make a judgement about when something is relevant, or not. And, of course, what may not seem relevant to me might be very relevant to you.

Impact and intention

Our actions have an impact on others, sometimes it is a good impact and sometimes not. Each of our actions has an intention and an impact. We tend to assume a person's intention based on the impact of their actions on us. If the impact on us is negative, we assume that the intention was bad. The problem with this is that good intentions can sometimes (quite often, in fact) have a negative impact.

Feelings and needs

The second aspect of our roadmap is that of our feelings and needs. Feelings and emotions arise when our needs are met, or not met. When they are met, we see this as a reward, and experience warm, positive feelings. When our needs are not met, we perceive this as a threat and experience negative feelings and emotions. Negative feelings can have a greater impact on us because we often react more strongly (negatively) to threats than rewards.

When conversations become difficult and result in argument and conflict it usually means we have reacted emotionally. Although the cause appears to be that we have different views to the other person, the real stimulus, that is, what we are reacting to, is that our needs are not being met.

When talking about feelings it helps if we have good vocabulary to express our feelings. The following list of feelings is taken from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) website.

Feelings when our needs are satisfied
  • Affectionate
  • Engaged
  • Hopeful
  • Confident
  • Excited
  • Grateful
  • Inspired
  • Joyful
  • Exhilarated
  • Peaceful
  • Refreshed
Feelings when our needs are NOT satisfied
  • Afraid
  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Aversion
  • Confused
  • Disconnected
  • Disquiet
  • Embarrassed
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Sad
  • Tense
  • Vulnerable
  • Yearning

When talking about feelings and needs it is also useful to think of feelings as the symptom and needs as the cause. It is easy to focus on our feelings and not to take into consideration our underlying needs. While some of us may (or may not) be able to recognise our feelings, including those listed above, few of us have a ready grasp of our basic human needs. Thankfully, quite a bit of research work has been done in this area. The following table of needs is drawn from a number of studies into human needs. The list is divided into the main groupings of needs identified by Abraham Maslow. These are usually known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It was initially proposed by Maslow that needs lower down the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to higher needs. He later changed his view, saying that needs at all levels of the hierarchy are attended to at the same time.

The needs that play a part in difficult conversations are usually in the groups of Relatedness, Esteem and Self Actualisation.

Self Actualisation - realisation of potential, meaning, achievement, purpose, creation, autonomy

Esteem - recognition, status, importance, respect from others, fairness, control, competence, privacy, identity

Relatedness - friendships, intimacy, family, community, participation, honesty, attention, understanding, emotional intimacy, affection

Safety - protection, personal security, financial security, health and well-being, play, leisure, peace

Physiological - subsistence, air, water, food, clothing, shelter

We have emphasised the importance of listening during dialogue. Being listened to helps fulfil our fundamental human need of requiring attention, thus producing a positive reaction and helping to build trust.

Roles

The third aspect of our roadmap is roles. Roles here has a double meaning. In the first, it means the roles each of us has played, as in what each person did – what was their contribution? In the second, it is linked to the identity of the person and the role this plays.

Contribution

By contribution, we mean identifying how each person has contributed to the situation of conflict by what they said or did (or did not do). This means examining each contribution and how it added to the whole. This analysis helps to frame the situation as a sequence of events that collectively resulted in something going wrong. The purpose is definitively not to allocate fault or to identify who is to blame. This process starts from the point of view that both (or more) people have contributed to making the conflict situation what it is and that it could not have got to where it is without all their contributions. Focusing on what each person contributed is a good way of changing the conversation from one that is looking to allocate blame into one that is more productive.

For this approach to be at its most useful, it is best if all those in the conversation first accept that they may have contributed to the situation in some way.

Identity

We perceive ourselves through certain lenses or templates – and how we see ourselves, in combination with how others perceive us, forms our identity. A sense of identity is a basic human need.

In fact, we have more than one identity. We adopt multiple roles depending on the situation we are in. For instance, many people see themselves quite differently at home than when at work – such perceptions lead us to behaving differently in different contexts. Sometimes the social pressures are so strong that it appears that this is forced upon us. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly the case that we are expected to think and behave in specific ways in specific situations – what is appropriate at a football match is not necessarily appropriate elsewhere.

You may have noticed that identity and status are basic human needs within the Esteem group of needs. So, in a conflict situation, any challenge to identity and status can result in a negative emotional reaction.

Identities are made all the more complicated because how we see ourselves is not necessarily how others see us. We are also prone to cognitive biases, where we accept information that supports our view of ourselves and ignore that which we believe contradicts it. And bear in mind that others may well be doing the same, accepting information that supports their view of you and rejecting that which contradicts it. You may think you pour oil on troubled waters, but do others see you that way?

How can we learn from difficult conversations?

Whether a difficult conversation goes well or badly, we can use this experience as an opportunity to learn and improve. In fact, we are more likely to learn something valuable when things have not worked out as well as we initially hoped.

Difficult conversations are opportunities for learning and reflection. We can examine what has happened, identify what we have learnt from the experience, and work on what we would do differently next time if a similar situation was to occur again. This is basic reflective learning, which is considered the most appropriate way for adults to learn and develop. It supports the basic human need of self-actualisation.

These questions can help prompt your reflection:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking at the time?
  • What did you feel at the time?
  • What do you think now?
  • How do you feel now?
  • What were the major contributions to the situation that caused it to happen?
  • What have you learned from the experience?
  • What will you do differently next time?