This is the third in a series of posts about how to be effective in difficult conversations – whether it’s bringing up something that’s upsetting you, asking for what you want, or discussing how somebody else’s behaviour is impacting on you. In part one, I discussed the importance of identifying before the conversation what your priorities are, and in part two I wrote about the specifics of how to approach these conversations and what to say. In this and subsequent parts, I’m going to talk a bit about what to do when you don’t get the response you wanted. If you’ve read the previous parts of this series, you may well have been thinking “That’s all well and good if the other person is reasonable and willing to listen, but what if they’re not?” That’s what I hope to address now.
I want to start by addressing two key points that are crucial to bear in mind throughout any challenging conversation. To have the best chance of getting a good outcome – that is, that the other person is willing to listen and work on resolving the topic you raise – it’s critical that you remain persistent and empathic throughout the conversation.
Persistence means being willing and actively working towards sticking to the key points you have raised, and to not get side-tracked or caught up in the various ways that the other person has of deflecting your point. It’s important to be aware that if the conversation feels uncomfortable or difficult to you, then there will be a part of you that also is quite willing to get sidetracked, to back down, to move on to more comfortable or less contentious topics, or to fall into the regular patterns of how arguments normally proceed. This means that it can be very easy to want to move away from your key points, and is why persistence is so important. For example, Bill has decided to talk to his boyfriend Adam about the way that Adam expects Bill to let him know any time he makes plans to go away, but often goes out himself without telling Bill.
Bill: Adam, when you get angry if I don’t tell you my plans to go away, but then you often go out without telling me I feel angry and unequal in the relationship. I’d like it if we could both make an effort to let each other know what we’re doing.
Adam: Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. By the way did you get the document scanned at work for me?
Bill: That’s okay, I know you probably didn’t mean it. Yeah, I’ll email it through to you later.
Here, Adam is deflecting the conversation simply by changing the topic. This may not even be intentional, and is one of the most common ways that we have of avoiding difficult conversations. Bill, by not being persistent, has allowed the topic of conversation to change. Sure, Adam has acknowledged what Bill has said but hasn’t really engaged in the conversation and no decision has been made about what, if anything, will change.
If Bill was to be persistent, he might respond by saying:
Bill: I know you probably didn’t mean for me to feel this way, but it is how I feel. I’d like it if we can both make an effort to let each other know what we’re doing, what do you think?
Persistence in this case often just means repeating and reiterating the key points that the other person hasn’t acknowledged or responded to – in this case, Bill’s request for what he would like to change.
Here’s another example of being persistent:
Helen: Rahul, when I asked you to pick up our son from school and you forgot, I felt furious and scared for our son. I would really like it if you can find a way to remind yourself so that I can rely on you for these sorts of things. Then I will feel much more trusting of you.
Rahul: Shit, I’m sorry. I got completely swamped at work, and then I was in a meeting that ran late. You know you’ve always been better at this sort of thing.
Helen: I understand that you have days like that at work. At the same time, it’s really important to me that our son does not get left at school again. What shall we do about it?
Rahul: Like I said, you’ve always been better at this stuff. If you want to make sure it happens, maybe you should do it.
Helen: I get that maybe it seems easier for me, but I’m working too and I also have to find ways to remind myself. It’s really important to me that we take responsibility for this together. How can we make that happen?
Here, Helen is being persistent by coming back to her point of what she wants to change, that they share responsibility for taking care of their son. She does this by simply repeating what she wants. When being persistent, questions like “What shall we do about it?” or “How can we make that happen?” are a great way to continue to invite (and gently pressure!) the other person into engaging with the key issue.
Helen’s responses here also highlight the second critical part of being effective in these conversations – empathy. Empathy, which sounds a lot like sympathy but is quite different, means being able to see things from the other person’s point of view – putting yourself in their shoes. What this means is that throughout the conversation, it’s important to think about and be aware of how it might feel for the other person and to listen out for this in their responses. If we can be empathic and let the other person know that we understand where they’re coming from and still be persistent at the same time, then we have the best chance for success. Here’s an example of an empathic and a not-so-empathic response:
Rahul: Well like I said, you’ve always been better at this stuff. If you want to make sure it happens, maybe you should do it.
Helen: I can see that it might seem like it’s easier for me, but actually I do find it hard sometimes as well.
Helen: Sure, make me do it all just like I do everything else. That’s typical for you, just selfish.
I’m sure it doesn’t take much guesswork to imagine which response might lead to a better outcome!
Being empathic also often means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their motivations. Most of us, even if we’re acting in an aggressive, unreasonable or selfish way do not see ourselves as acting in this way, and in fact will usually feel something quite different. In the example above, although Rahul’s behaviour and what he is saying could reasonably be seen as being selfish, it’s likely that what he’s feeling is attacked, guilty, useless or not good enough. Therefore, being empathic means reflecting what we imagine the other person might be feeling or thinking rather than what they are doing and being kind to them as well as to ourselves. For example, an empathic statement might be something like “I can imagine you might be feeling attacked by me right now, but I think this is something we can work out if we can just talk about it”. In general, a good way to respond to somebody trying to deflect or defend against something you want to talk about is to use statements like “I understand you might think that…” or “I see that you might be feeling…” combined with “…and it’s really important to me that we be able to talk about this” or “…and I think we can find a way to sort this out if we think about it together”. Again, combining empathy (what the other person may be feeling) with persistence (what you want – to talk about, and then address the issue).
Of course, it’s not easy to remain empathic when we’re having a difficult conversation – emotions are running high, and we can easily feel attacked, or feel angered and want to attack the other person. However, the more we can tolerate these feelings in ourselves without responding to them, and the more we can use our anger and frustration to be persistent rather than aggressive, the better the outcome will be. For this reason, it’s helpful to go through the steps outlined in the previous two posts on this topic so that we feel clear in ourselves what our priorities are, and what we want to say. Similarly, it’s important to bring up the conversation at a good time – when both we and the other person are not distracted, or already angry or upset.
In the next part of this series of posts I will start to talk about how to respond to particular responses that the other person can have, starting with one that I mentioned briefly in this post: changing the topic.