This is the fifth and possibly final post in a series 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 part four I discussed how to respond to one of the most common responses when trying to initiate a difficult conversation – when the other person changes the subject. In this part, I’ll talk about how to respond to some of the other common things that can happen in difficult conversations that can cause it to become derailed – when somebody tries to nitpick about the content of a complaint or concern.
Let’s start by exploring what this looks like, because it’s something you’ve probably seen before. In this example, Dalia has a problem with the way her partner Michael seems to always say ‘yes’ to requests made by his mother without thinking about how this is going to affect Dalia. The conversation might go something like this:
Dalia: Michael, I wondered if I could talk to you about what happened with your mother last weekend. She said she wanted to come over, and you said that was fine without checking with me, even though we’d had plans to go out for lunch together. You often say yes to her without thinking about how this will affect me and I’m feeling very frustrated about it.
Now, Michael might respond in a few different ways, but if he’s using the tactic we’re talking about here he might say something like:
Michael: It’s not like I always do that. Remember last month when she called while we were watching a movie and I told her I’d have to call her back?
Another way he might respond along similar lines might be:
Michael: Well, when we talked about going out for lunch the night before you said “Since we don’t have any other plans what about going out for lunch?” so I figured you didn’t mind changing that if something else did come up.
In either case, rather than responding directly to the overall concern raised by Dalia, Michael is responding to the specific content of her complaint and nitpicking – in the first example by suggesting that she is overgeneralising (“I don’t always do that”) and in the second example by suggesting that her complaint is not 100% accurate.
This is a common way for people to respond to a concern raised by the other person, and can then lead down a very predictable path of both people getting into an argument about the accuracy (or otherwise) of the original complaint. If Dalia then responded with “Yes but that was just one time, remember the month before that when she came to stay when I was really busy at work and you didn’t ask me” then what you end up is with a back and forth argument of both people providing examples or arguing over the details of the complaint. Similarly, with Michael’s second response Dalia might reply by saying “Well yes but I thought you’d realise that once we’d agreed to go to lunch that that meant we were sticking to that plan”. Again it becomes easy to get stuck in a back and forth argument about what each person meant and whether the initial complaint was justified or not. In the process, the fact that this was about a pattern of behaviour rather than a single incident gets lost.
As a result, it’s important to be prepared for this response and know how to keep the conversation on track. This is done in a very similar way to when the other person changes the subject, by acknowledging the detour away from the original concern and then returning to that topic. So how might this go? In the first situation, Dalia might respond by saying something like:
Dalia: You’re right, there are times when you have said no to your mother and I’ve really appreciated it when you do consider the impact on me. All the same, there are many times where that hasn’t happened which is what I’d like to talk about.
Acknowledging the other person’s response here is important, as it avoids getting into a conflict over the content of the complaint by recognising both parts of the reality – that this is not something that happens 100% of the time, but it is something that happens often enough to be a concern. The principle behind this that also contributes to effective communication is being willing to give the other person the benefit of the doubt – by acknowledging and reinforcing the times where they do behave differently or do something different from the usual pattern.
In the second example, the response could be very similar:
Dalia: Fair enough, I might not have been clear in this situation that these plans were important to me. However, this is something that’s happened on many occasions so I’d like us to be able to talk about what we can change when it does happen.
Again, Dalia is acknowledging the part of what Michael is saying that is true without getting into a debate or argument over the accuracy of the complaint, and then immediately coming back to the fact that her concern relates to an overall pattern of behaviour rather than just this one incident.
Let’s look at another longer example of how this kind of nitpicking and the responses to it might play out in a longer conversation.
Marama is angry that her partner Nicole often ends up having angry outbursts when she is drinking which has started to alienate some of their friends. They seem to have been getting worse recently, which has led to Marama feeling scared at times in the relationship. By using some of the approaches discussed in this and the previous articles, the conversation could end up going something like this:
Marama: Nicole, when you’ve been drinking recently and have gotten angry in front of our friends I’ve been feeling quite scared and worried. I’m wondering if you’d consider talking about it with someone?
Nicole: What do you mean? Are you talking about Friday? How did you expect me to respond when Jack started making jokes about my job, was I just supposed to sit there and take it?
Marama: You’re right, it makes sense to me that you would feel angry about that. I don’t mind that you feel angry, but when you express it by standing up and yelling at him and saying that you ‘want to smash his face in’ I feel scared.
Nicole: That’s crap, I didn’t say I’d smash him, I said he needed to watch his mouth or one day someone might end up smashing him.
Marama: Fair enough, I might not have remembered it quite right. But this is something that has happened several times now in different ways. I think you know what I mean.
Nicole: It’s not like you never talk shit to people. Remember last week when you got cut off in traffic and you went on a rant for like twenty minutes about “useless drivers”
Marama: That’s true – it might be that this is something that we could both work on, and I’d be happy to talk about that. But I’m wondering if we can start by talking about what happens when we go out drinking.
Nicole: Man I can’t be bothered with this right now. You always seem to want to start fights.
Marama: I know this stuff is hard to talk about – I find that too, but I think it’s important. If we can find a way to talk about this it’ll help me to feel closer to you, and I’d really like for us both to be able to enjoy the times we go out together. If now doesn’t feel like a good time to talk, when do you think might work better for you?
Nicole: Fine okay, so what do want?
Of course, this conversation could easily go on a lot longer and require a lot of perseverance on Marama’s part – but hopefully you can see some of the patterns in how Marama is responding that help make a good outcome more likely:
1) She is consistently acknowledging Nicole’s experience and not trying to argue over the details of the complaint
2) She is consistently returning to her concern, and what she wants – to be able to talk about it
3) She brings in the positive outcome that could come from having a conversation – being able to feel closer to each other and being able to enjoy their times out together
4) She avoids using blaming or judgemental language, and sticks to the observable facts of what has happened and how she has felt about it
Again, perseverance and empathy are at the heart of this approach – the more we are able to validate and acknowledge the other person’s position without backing down or abandoning our own experience, the more likely we are to be able to have a real conversation about what is going on, and the more likely we are to be able to find a solution while still maintaining the relationship between ourselves and whoever we are talking to.