Difficult Conversations

Much to my surprise, I’m getting interested in difficult conversations. I have sidestepped them as much as possible most of my life believing that engaging in them would only lead to conflict and a breach in relationships. But lately I’m more aware that difficult conversations are actually a pathway to relating to others at a genuine level beyond being nice and keeping a wary peace.

I’m reading a book now called aptly enough for my exploration of the topic– Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Paton and Sheila Heen. It is that last bit of the title that intrigues me–what matters most. And what matters most to me is getting to the truth of things. What is really going on in this relationship? How did they come to hold that view? Where did our communication become awkward? When did I start giving away a piece of myself in this relationship just to avoid a confrontation?

The authors define a difficult conversation as “anything you find hard to talk about.” What I find gratifying is that much of what they talk about is what we have been learning as volunteers at the Listening Post. What we have called “staying open” and “listening to understand” when hearing things that are difficult, they call “shifting to a learning stance.” Much of that shift means, of course, listening to the other’s story. The shift involves by necessity to stop judging, another hallmark of the Listening Post. Or in their words, to stop arguing about who’s right. After a humbling conversation recently, I realized that I had made some big assumptions about the motivations of a friend. And by listening, I learned where she made assumptions too. We held different opinions–but I had to see that even if I thought I was right, that didn’t necessarily mean that she was wrong! It was a different way of seeing based on our personal histories. The authors summarize this process as “We have different information. We have different interpretations. Our conclusions reflect self-interest.” Yeah. That was true for me.

Their next suggestion is to “Move from Certainty to Curiosity.” I can actually feel a shift in my body with those words. Certainty feels rigid and closed, whereas curiosity feels like relaxing. A curious stance feels like the exploration that I want to have without the defenses I usually have to protect myself from what feels like an attack in a misunderstanding. What if I could come to see the world I inhabit as more of a “both/and” world rather than an “either/or”?

I’m staying interested in difficult conversations and will explore this more with the volunteers at the Listening Post in an upcoming meeting. Stay tuned.

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