This is the fourth 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 part three I discussed the importance of maintaining empathy for the person you are talking with and being persistent. In the next few parts I will address how to respond to some of the reactions you can get from other people when having a difficult conversation, starting in part 4 with one of the most common responses: changing the subject.
Changing the Subject
One of the most common ways that difficult conversations can get derailed is through the simple act of changing the subject. Although I say simple, the ways in which the subject gets changed can be quite subtle to the point that you might not even realise that the initial issue has not been addressed until after the conversation!
A subtle but common way that this happens is through a shift to subjects that are tangentially related to the topic under discussion, but which actually lead the conversation into a different direction. For example, Adele is angry with her mother Laura about the way her mother rarely seems to be happy for her when she has successes and always focuses on what she could improve. A conversation might go something like this:
Adele: Mum, when I told you that I had got a promotion at work and you said that “it was about time and that I should have got further in my career by now” I felt hurt and unsupported. I’d really like it if you could enjoy my successes with me and not point out things that you feel I could do better.
Laura: I get that but it’s just that I want the best for you. You’re a talented woman and at your age you could be doing more with your life. What about that job I told you about, did you apply for that?
Adele: Yes I did, but I’m not sure if I’ll get it – they’re looking for somebody more experienced.
Laura: Well you have to keep trying, if you don’t try you’ll never succeed.
And now the conversation is completely derailed. In this case the subject change seems somewhat relevant (asking about whether Adele applied for a job) but is actually a shift away from the original subject – Adele’s feelings about how her mother responds to her successes and what she would like her to do about it.
The first step to overcoming this issue in conversation is to notice that it is happened. If you bring up a topic (like Adele did), after you get a response ask yourself: Do I feel that the other person has heard what I’ve said? Do I feel that they have responded to my point, or are they bringing in another topic/talking about something else? If you don’t feel that they have responded to what you raised, then the first tactic to address the issue is to simply change the subject back. You can do this by acknowledging briefly what they’ve said, and then returning to the main point. In the example above, Adele might respond by saying “Yes I did apply for the job. Right now though I’d like it if we could discuss what happens when I have a success in my life, as I feel hurt and disappointed when you respond by focusing on the things that I could still improve rather than on what I have achieved”.
If the other person continues to change the subject or respond evasively, then the next tactic to try is to point out what seems to be happening, in a non-judgemental and non-confrontational way. A good way to do this is to say something like:
“It seems like it’s hard for us to talk about this issue of how you respond when I have successes in my life. Is there something about it that feels difficult or uncomfortable for you?”
The important thing here is to say this with an attitude of empathy and curiosity. That means that rather than expressing frustration with the other person, or accusing them (“It seems like this is difficult for you!”) we want to approach it from the point of view of trying to understand where they are coming from. To be able to wonder, together with them, what is it about this topic that feels so hard to talk about, and be open to hearing their thoughts and feelings about it. If this approach goes well, it might look something like this:
Adele: Mum, I notice it seems like it’s hard for us to talk about this issue of how your respond to my successes. Is there something about it that feels difficult for you?
Laura: I don’t know why you keep bringing this up, I always just feel like you’re attacking me when all I want is for you to do well!
Adele: That makes sense – I imagine it’s frustrating to feel like you just want the best for me and that I just attack you for it. But I wonder if we can talk about it a bit, because although you want the best for me I don’t always experience it that way. Maybe if we can find some different ways for you to let me know that you want the best for me we can both feel good about it.
See what happens here? Adele responds by acknowledging/empathising with her mother’s feeling, but then importantly she comes back to the original issue. Now though she has some information about why her mother finds it hard to talk about, and is able to use that to frame the problem as something that they can both benefit from discussing (“maybe we can both feel good about it”).
Another way that the subject can get changed that can end up being very frustrating and confusing is where one or both people in the conversation use ambiguous language, and this can go on in such a way that it can be hard to work out exactly what is being talked about, whether you are in fact talking about the same thing, or even to remember what the original issue even was!
For example, another way the conversation above might have played out is:
Adele: Mum, when I told you that I had got a promotion at work and you said some unsupportive things I felt hurt and disappointed. I’d really like it if you could enjoy my successes with me and not point out things that you feel I could do better.
Laura: What do you mean, I’ve never been unsupportive to you. I’ve always wanted the best for you, you just don’t always see it.
Adele: I know you feel that way but I don’t experience it like that.
Laura: What about all the years I put in when you were younger, you can be so ungrateful sometimes.
Adele: I do appreciate that but we’re talking about now, when I’m an adult!
At this point one or both people are probably starting to feel like they have no idea what they are arguing about, just that they feel about it very strongly! A lot of the arguments we have that are ‘over nothing’ can result from this kind of process, where we quickly lose sight of what we were really trying to discuss through using ambiguous words like ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘it’, ‘things’, ‘stuff’. The main tactic to address this issue is just to always use specific language yourself when bringing up a topic (so rather than say “unsupportive things” say “when you commented that I could have done better”) and to ask for clarification from the other person if you notice them using ambiguous terms (“Just so I’m clear, can you explain what you mean by ‘stuff’?”)
So to recap, these are the key steps to avoid the subject being changed when having a difficult conversation:
1. Notice that it is happening – ask yourself, has the other person responded to my point or have they introduced something new?
2. Use specific language to avoid getting side-tracked by ambiguity
3. Gently change the subject back to the topic you want to discuss. E.g. “That sounds important for us to talk about, but right now I’d like to address (topic)”
4. If the other person continues to change the subject or be evasive, point out that the topic seems hard to talk about and ask if they know why that might be.
5. Remain empathic and curious, open to hearing the other person’s view
It’s important to note that developing these skills takes time and practice. I’m reminded of a talk I saw by a therapist recently who talked about doing ‘therapy scales’. He was comparing therapy to learning an instrument, and pointing out that when you learn an instrument you have to do the boring work of learning to play scales carefully and accurately over and over and over in order to then be able to play music in a way that is precise and beautiful. His point was that the same is true of therapy skills, and equally the same is true of conversation skills – these things have to be practiced repeatedly and slowly, with the expectation that you will get things wrong at first. And, it doesn’t matter if you do.
What’s important is learning from what’s happened. If you try out some of these skills and the conversation doesn’t go the way you would have liked, or it does for a bit and then gets off track, think about it afterwards. At what point did things start to go off track? What was said, with what tone of voice, what body language? What might you have been able to say or do differently in that moment? When reflecting on these things it’s important not to criticise yourself for not having done it differently – the reality is that it will take practice, and each time you notice that things went off track is an opportunity to think about and experiment with a different approach next time to see if you can get further in the conversation.
Also, just because something might not have gone well one time is no reason it might not go better the next. In fact, you can use this as a way to bring up the topic again if you do want to have another go by saying something like “I feel like last time we tried to talk about (issue) it became pretty difficult for both of us. I wonder if we could try discussing it again?”
For example, you might notice that things were going fine until the other person pointed out that you also sometimes do the same thing that you were asking them not to do, at which point you felt confused and not sure how to proceed and ended up becoming defensive. If you take the time to reflect on this afterwards given what I’ve discussed here, you might decide that next time something like that happens you could respond by saying “Isn’t it interesting that I seem to do the same thing? Can we talk about how we both might be able to address this issue?”
Learning how to keep conversations on track is as simple as bringing things back to the issue you’ve raised when it gets diverted, and as difficult as overcoming all the subtle and clever ways that we have for changing the topic without us even noticing that it’s happened. It takes practice both for noticing when it happens, and feeling confident in switching the topic back when it does.
Good luck, and in the next article I will address ways of responding when the other person reacts by ‘shooting the messenger’ – when they respond through criticism or retaliation.