What do you do when you and your partner disagree on something truly important? How do you find a way to bridge the divide and come back to a place of collaboration and understanding? And how do you know when to throw in the towel? Today’s guest, Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, is one of the world’s masters of turning difficult conversations around. In today’s episode, you’ll discover some of the skills required to get through an impasse back to a place of connection. And like many of the relationship skills that we’ve covered here on the Relationship Alive podcast, our goal is to give you some new approaches to familiar situations, to uncover the blind spots that get you into these predicaments in the first place (or prevent you from getting out of them. Once you make the shift, you’ll never experience conflict in the same way again.
What qualifies as a difficult conversation? If you are anxious about raising a conversation, or have raised a certain topic a million times and it goes badly or nothing really changes, then it qualifies as a difficult conversation. Difficult conversations are those that are about things that really matter to us, and with people who really matter to us. Difficult conversations have a certain intensity to them, often eliciting strong emotions, and carrying a long history. These are the conversations where the stakes feel high, and you might feel like there are just no possible solutions.
Difficult conversations are part of a healthy relationship. Having a relationship comes down to the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions, meaning that it is less about never having conflict or disconnect, but rather having enough eye to eye and heart to heart to repair, grow, and trust. This is especially true when it comes to communication. Do not take the fact that you may be arguing or disagreeing as an immediate sign of health. Instead look at how you are having the conversations. We all know that there are many ways of communicating that damage relationships, however it is important to realize that there are also many ways to have difficult conversations that in fact help build and strengthen your bond!
Don’t get too caught up in the content! Moving difficult conversations towards healthy connection is about looking and listening for what is underneath the content.
It is very easy to get hooked into the substance of the conversation- however the substantive issue is temporary and ephemeral, while what is underneath is long term and deep set. Take a step back and look at HOW you are having the conversation, more than focusing on the WHAT of the conversation. Are you trying to understand the deeper layers? Listening for the implicit messages? Beneath what it is you may be talking about or disagreeing on is a second layer consisting of feelings and fears about being cared for, understood, appreciated, loved, etc. This second level is the glue that holds relationships together, and is often an omnipresent influence in the tone of the relationship, whether acknowledged or not.
Be willing to let go of control. Many of us come into our interactions with the agenda of changing the other person. What we believe we really want is for them to be different, and we think that if they changed then all would be better. As a result we become hyper-focused on getting the other person to think X or do Y, which inevitably increases tension and discord. We must try to fess up and come to terms with the fact that we don’t have ultimate control over how or if someone else will change. Instead of so actively trying to fight and avoid this reality- embrace it! At first this may feel frustrating, or depressing, but soon enough there will be this sense of liberation. Ah…a weight lifts off your shoulders and you become available to tend to what is happening for YOU. In letting go of the need, desire, and agenda to control the other, we enter into the conversation in a more open way that actually maximizes the chances that you will get the results you ultimately want!
Shift to a learning conversation: We are all guilty of confusing conversation with the need to win the argument, or get the other to admit we are right. Acknowledge this desire and tendency, and then work towards shifting the purpose of the conversation from delivering YOUR message to that of connecting for the purpose of learning. If the purpose is truly to learn more about each other’s differing perspectives, then a certain level of trust will be possible that then is often the opening to options, connection, and possibilities that were otherwise unseen.
Internal voice: If you look and listen below what people say to each other, then you can tune into the running commentary of their (or your) internal voice. This is the voice that has strong beliefs, is fearful, worries, judges, has negative or distorted view points, and projects on those around. Get to know your own internal voice in an effort to realize how it is influencing your ability to be present in meaningful conversations. In conflict, this internal voice is preoccupied with 3 levels of conversation:
- What Happened Conversation. This is that inherent sense of “I am right”. We feel that we have a story about what happened, what is happening, and what should happen going forward.
- Feelings Conversation- Strong feelings are the energy that drives the conversation and guides our reactions. Notice what feelings are fueling you- sadness? Feeling at whit’s end? Feeling afraid?
- Identity Conversation. One of the strongest contributors to how we are or are not reacting in conflict is due to what we feel the situation says about us. We wonder whether we are competent. Loved? A good parent? Identity is really driving who we are trying to be in most conversation.
What happened conversation: When we are focused on the WHAT happened part of the conflict or discord, we are usually focusing on 3 things:
1) Preoccupation with what I am right about
2) Placing blame and figuring out whose fault it is
3) Looking for intentions and what is motivating the other person to be so adamant/unreasonable/etc.
Intention and actions: It is inherent that many of us have a tendency to think the worst of other people and the best of ourselves. Whether through a sense of protection, ego, or defensiveness, we commonly interpret our own behavior in the best light. We also project our fears on others, confusing feelings and fears. For example, if our partner does not do the dishes, we may automatically believe that it is because they do not care, or that they are trying to make our life miserable, or that they simply did in on purpose to upset us. This blaming and assumption of bad intentions is one of the fastest ways to escalate a fight! To slow this reactivity down, it is important to pull apart and make space between intentions and impacts. Intentions are invisible. Again, intentions are invisible. We have no x-ray capacity to truly know someone else’s intentions without them letting us know. What we can see is actions, and what we can do about it is share and ask. Tell your partner how their actions impacted you. Tell them that you don’t know what their intention was. Tell them you are frustrated/mad/sad/hurt. You can even share with that that it isn’t working for you. But while you do, also share that you are curious about what is happening for them. Then listen. Gather information about their side of the story. Be receptive instead of defensive, and curious instead of controlling. The truth is that there will be no new solution until the problem itself is really understood.
Blame vs. contribution: Blame is an inherent part of our internal voice. It is part of our way of looking in reverse and learning from our experiences. It asks “whose fault is it” and then figures out punishment. While it is true that blame can be dangerous as it escalates conflict and impacts safety and trust, it is also a hard wired way we figure out problems. A healthier, and more productive way of using blame, is to shift to joint contribution. Instead of focusing whose fault it is, the concept of joint contribution assumes that everyone contributed somehow*. It may not necessarily be 50/50, but there is shared responsibility. Thinking through a joint contribution lens helps get at the critical learning needed to build awareness that allows the relationship to develop and shift out of stuck patterns.
*Note: contribution is not just what you DID, but what you may not have done. It may look, for example, like ways you are expecting something from your partner that you know is not truly who they are/what they are capable of. Are you still expecting them to be on time, when you KNOW they are always 10 minutes late?
Are you an absorber or a shifter? Absorbers are those that are quick to see their faults, while shifters are those that never see their part in a conflict or situation. As with many dynamics in relationships, there is usually a balancing out of these tendencies- with one person becoming more of the absorber in order to bring equilibrium. Over time however, this pattern becomes unstable as the absorber gets overtired from overcompensating and taking on the blame, and always being the one who apologizes. They hit their limit of what they are able to change about themselves without having their partner shift as well. Absorbers themselves have to take responsibility for how their overcompensation is affecting the relationship, and learn to make ultimatums. Take responsibility early and often for your contribution to a problem!
Feelings conversation: Feelings are inevitably going to be present and part of difficult conversations. Make them known, visible, and heard. Let them be part of the dialogue. How we each feel treated in a relationship, and how we feel treated on a specific issue is always at the heart of the conflict. Welcome feelings in, not as distractors or points of contention, but rather as inarguable truths that need attention. Feelings can get a bad rep- but they play such a positive role in relationships and help lead us towards deep and core meaning and values.
There is a big difference between expressing emotion and being emotional. Being emotional often involves translating our feelings into judgments. Internal emotional voices are profane, and tend to come out sounding big and mean. This is the WHAT THE FUCK part of us. In effort to avoid hurting our partners, we try to hold our emotions in, muting and hiding them. There is, however, ways to share emotions without coming from emotionality. Practice noticing and naming the emotion, and then OWNING IT. Speak FOR the feeling, rather than from it. Say “I am so frustrated/lost/at whit’s end/hurt”, without adding on an attack (because you…). Share things such as “I am confused about whether or not you are as committed as I am” or “I’m scared about what this might mean for our relationship”, or “I feel lonely”. Watch out that you do not say “I feel LIKE”. A feeling followed by ‘like’ turns it automatically into a thought and a judgment.
Identity conversation: Identify questions fuel feelings and fears. What is usually at stake is not whether or not your partner did or did not do the dishes/come on time/follow through/etc, as much as it is about your own identity of what this means. You may be questioning whether you are lovable or not, whether they care or not, whether you are trustworthy or not, or whether you are someone who is willing to be walked on or not. These deeper questions and insecurities prompt the feelings that get embedded into the meaning of an action.
Identifying what is at stake: In order to gain clarity on what identity questions are influencing your reactions, it is helpful to hone in on what you are truly worried about. Ask yourself “What do I worry this conversation/conflict says about me?” Begin to get a pulse for your common insecurities and put your finger on what the deeper questions you are constantly asking are. Depending on the questions you are asking, you find evidence. Looking for evidence that solidifies our worst fears gets us into a whole lot of trouble in relationships. When you get a handle of these identity pieces, you can get insight into why certain conflicts feel so high stakes.
Collaborating anew: To move out of conflict and towards collaboration, it is key that you shift to a third story. In conversation there is always MY story, and YOUR story, and yet, realize that there is always also a third story. This third story is the one that holds onto the knowing that each of you have a different relationship to the problem and have different conclusions. This third story respects discord and even embraces it. Coming from this place of accepting difference, allows for the possibility of understanding, learning, and togetherness. It might sound something like: “Hey babe- look ,we have been trying to talk about this for a while now, and I may have not done a great job yet of understanding how we got here, or what this means to you, but I am going to try again. I’m not here to persuade you of anything, or show you how I am right, I just really want to learn what is at stake for you in this situation, and what you are afraid of.” Follow through- listen, don’t argue, be curious, step into a 3rd party listening role and just hear them for who and what they are. Say “tell me more about that…”. Of course, you WILL have your own internal reactions and defenses, and it is okay to share your struggle from a centered place. Sign post it! Meaning, it is okay to name for your partner what is happening for you internally, but only with the intention of sharing- not with the intention of blaming.
Slow it Down! These conversations take time! Do not rush them, or expect them to resolve immediately. Give time for digestion and processing. In fact, it is a good idea to give a while (hours, a day) between really allowing your partner to share their side, and you sharing yours. Acknowledge how much you have learned from their sharing, and then choose a time when you will have a chance to share how it affected you and where you are at. When we postpone the expectation for the need to respond immediately we really create the space necessary to sink into deep listening. Time allows for us to move away from reactivity, and into responsiveness. When we take off the pressure of having to find the solution instantaneously we open ourselves up to listen for the deeper fears, worries, identity issues, and core feelings.
Opening up more than just my way or your way. While this all might sound like a long and arduous process, it is ultimately way more efficient AND worthwhile. Take the time to really show up for deeply understand the problem, and you will find how much more graceful and easeful solutions appear. This is true because deep listening allows for collaboration. You get to a place of knowing what is at stake for each of you (without the need to agree), and you begin to understand each other’s points of view. This creates common ground around the stuckness. “Oh wow- we really are on different pages here!”. In most cases, individual solutions are not actually what is needed as much as it is about the process. Can you solve the problem together? Can you reconcile differences while walking through life together? Create sanctuaries in your conversations that honor your differences! Invite in the difficult conversations with courage and vulnerability, as this leads to transformation!
Check out the Triad Consulting Group
Find more information on Heen’s work here
Learn more about the Harvard Negotiation Project
Read Sheila Heen’s Book Difficult Conversations
Also read her book Thanks for the Feedback
Our Relationship Alive Community on Facebook
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