Notes from Bernie Bolger & Valerie Norton talking about ‘Hard Conversations’ on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife ABC 702 Monday 12 August

Have you ever been in a situation where someone you know is continually doing something that really bugs you?  Perhaps your girlfriend NEVER offers to pay for dinner.  Or your immediate boss always takes the credit for your hard work when he is talking to senior management.  Or the worst one of all – one of your colleagues at work doesn’t use deodorant and reeks of BO.  You know you should address the issue but every time you get a chance, you chicken out. And then you get annoyed with yourself and become bad tempered.  But instead of taking that as a cue to actually do something about the real problem, you take your bad humour out on some poor innocent victim who just happens to be walking by at the wrong time – like the family dog or the sweet little junior temp who was just saying hello.

Tonight we have Bernie Bolger and Valerie Norton from Collaborative Mediation Practice with us to talk about how to initiate the hard conversations up front in order to avoid a lot of angst and pain down the track

Q. So why is it that some conversations are harder to have than others?
Perhaps a more interesting way of looking at this would be why is it that some conversations are hard for one person and seemingly easy for the next? I think for a conversation to be difficult, it must have the following three elements.

  • Opposing opinions
  • Strong personal emotions
  • High stakes – professionally and / or personally

Obviously these three criteria will mean different things to different people.  So despite the importance of a particular conversation, we often back away from them because we fear we will make the situation worse.  This can be exacerbated if we already suffer from some form of insecurity where we are afraid we won’t be ‘popular’ or ‘loved’ if we speak out.  We become Masters of Avoidance but clearly the issues don’t go away – they are just manifest in other areas of our lives and eventually ‘explode’ out of us – usually in a destructive, angry manner.

Q. So what do you think of the idea that the closer the relationship the harder it is to have these conversations?
Again that is related to the previous point.  On the surface it could appear that the more intimate the relationship the more likely it is that there will be strong personal emotions and the harder it is to keep the conversation on track.  However power imbalance also plays a vital role in having the ability to have the conversation.  And the problem with power imbalance is that it can often be covert such as in a long term relationship between spouses (Despite numerous denials there always is a boss).  Obviously the more overt examples are in professional relationships between employers and employees, parents and kids, teachers and pupils.

Q. So if you were to name a few of the most common ‘hardest conversations’, what would they be?
Hard conversations are literally everywhere e.g.

  • Talking about money in a relationship
  • Ending a relationship
  • Asking your partner if they are having an affair
  • Talking to a co-worker who smells
  • Asking a friend to repay a loan
  • Asking a roommate to move out
  • Asking the in-laws to stop interfering

Q.  And how do we normally deal with them?
Very often in one of three ways

  1. Avoid them altogether and hope they’ll go away
  2. Address them but  handle them badly
  3. Face them and address them well.

Unfortunately No. 3 doesn’t get a huge look in too often

In fact there is a psychologist from Harvard called Daniel Gilbert. In his book ’Stumbling on Happiness’ he asks why will partners fight loud and often about the dirty dishes left in the sink and never address infidelity? This is a great question which can be answered using the framework mentioned previously.  There is definitely more at stake by bringing up the affair than yelling about the dishes.  One would also think there would be stronger emotions and opposing opinions at play.  Much less confronting to deal with the dishes.  As we have seen in our years of psychotherapy and mediation practice – ‘the issue is never the issue’

Q. But surely there are many situations when you just are never going to agree? When you are well and truly gridlocked?
That is so true.  And one of the most liberating things to realise is that it is actually ok not to agree with your friends and family on everything.  How you manifest this non-agreement and deal with it in everyday life is the key.  John and Julie Gottman, who are probably recognised as the modern day gurus of relationship therapy say it is important to build up a reservoir of goodwill within the relationship.  They have even put a number on it.  For every negative thing that is said, five positive comments are needed to balance it.  This means when a hard conversation is necessary, both parties will be more ready to listen because historically the interaction between them has not been overwhelmingly negative.  And when you realise that nearly 69% of all conflicts are perpetual, i.e. they tend to reoccur, then it is even more important to have the skills to be able to discuss the topic rationally, respectfully and perhaps even gently.

Similar research has been done in the workplace. Sean Achor, a psychologist in Harvard has come up with a similar idea around positive feedback.  The ratio in the workplace in 3:1 positive to negative comments in order for teams to be able to work productively together.

Q. So are you saying that the aim of the conversation may not necessarily be to end up agreeing with each other but rather to understand each other’s point of view and be able to respect that?
Exactly.  When people are gridlocked over an issue, they basically feel betrayed, disrespected, hurt, and frustrated. And these feelings can cascade down a path of anger, loneliness, distance and disengagement. So rather than let this occur, a central part of navigating conflict is to uncover and understand the meaning of each person’s position in the conflict.  If we understand that even seemingly trivial gridlocked issues have symbolic value we can modify our tone and language to reflect this greater understanding.  Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling have no place in a hard conversation

Q.  So if you were to list the attributes of a hard conversation handled well, what would they be?
And that is the multi-million dollar question.  I think the best way to do that is with an example e.g.   Tony, can you think of a current situation that is testing your resilience.

Ask yourself the following questions

(i) ‘What can I control in the situation?’

(ii) ‘What can I do to influence this situation?’

(iii) ‘What do I have to accept here?’

And then have a conversation using the following guidelines

  1. Listen. The Number One most important element of having a conversation is not about talking – even though that is what we all like to do.  It is actually having the ability to shut up, listen and be present.  It certainly helps not to have any of the normal distractions like electronic devices going off.  So always make sure you give the other person and the topic the space and time they deserve.
  2. Mutual Respectful Understanding. Another word for this is empathy or being able to walk in the other person’s shoes.  This is normally incredibly hard for us to do because in the 21st century it tends to be all about us.   You don’t have to agree but it certainly helps when you understand.
  3. Path to Collaboration. This means coming to the table with the right motives and not with the intention of proving the other person wrong or changing them. It means asking the 4 mindful questions of yourself and then answering them honestly
    • What do I want for me?
    • What do I want for others?
    • What do I want for the relationship?
    • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

    It involves using ‘I’ rather than ‘You’ statements, staying focussed on your needs and explaining clearly your objectives.  It means not getting distracted by buttons being pushed and needing to score small points.  DO NOT GET DISTRACTED FROM THE CONVERSATION BY EMOTIONS

  4. Win/Win. The outcome doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ solution.  The best collaborative solutions often involve ‘and’.  This is about generating options not just it’s my road or the high road mindset. Think about the orange scenario
  5. Help. If you find you just can’t get a constructive conversation going and the subject is very important to you – don’t be afraid to seek outside help.  Sometimes when bad habits have set in over a long period of time, a neutral third party facilitator or mediator is the only way set change in motion.    Do yourself a favour and save yourself some serious angst in the long term by getting help early.