When a Conversation Gets Complicated

Shelley BaurBehavior, Communication, Family, Kindness, Mixed Messages, RelationshipsLeave a Comment

As the holidays approach and families gather together, you may get caught up in a conversation that gets complicated, or takes a direction that creates discomfort. Maybe it stems from a long-standing difference of opinion that has no clear resolution. Maybe it’s a health issue that provokes fear. Or maybe it’s a yearning to mend fences, and re-connect in healthy ways.

You can be sure that any feeling that shows up at the dinner table is likely to show up in other areas of your life as well. Best case, the feeling manifests as joy. More often, I hear of angst instead. Unfortunately, a dose of fear or anger never aids digestion.

Sometimes you don’t know where to begin, but you usually have a sense of what may come up, from year to year. If you yearn for a different kind of outcome from a typical exchange, here are some suggested ways of approaching the conversation, or specific issue, that could produce a different, more reflective result. 

Key considerations for you:

  1. Listen carefully and completely.
  2. Don’t interrupt to offer advice.
  3. Repeat what you hear verbatim, in their words, without interpreting or paraphrasing.
  4. Let the person know that you have heard them, fully.
  5. Be mindful of your tone of voice and body language, lest you send a “mixed message.”
  6. If needed, move away from the other guests to have more privacy.

Whether you are approaching a holiday gathering with excitement or trepidation, imagine your “target conversation” as a scenario where you are a neutral observer. Doing so can offer a totally different perspective than the experience of the live conversation itself. Practice what you could say, how they might respond, how the conversation proceeds, depending on what you say. If you’re unhappy with that practiced outcome, try again, taking a different approach.

Perhaps you can relate to the difference between watching yourself present on video, which allows you to detach, with curiosity and interest. Compare that to presenting live, in front of an audience, where nervousness and fear can create imbalance. Totally different experience. Personally, I like to practice while recording on my phone. It doesn’t show me my body language, but playback does reveal tone of voice and inflection. Could be a signal to soften a bit.

If you’re game, use one or more of the questions suggested, and tweak to make your own:

Clarifying Questions:

  • What do you mean when you say…?
  • Can you give me an example of a time when…?
  • Of all the things that concern you about ______, what concerns you the most?

Broadening Questions:

  • What else happened when…?
  • How do you respond when that happens?
  • Tell me more about…

Interest Exploring Questions:

  • What concerns you about________?
  • What do you worry about?
  • What were you expecting when…?
  • What do you hope this will be like in the future?
  • How were you hoping they would respond?
  • What do you value about…?
  • What is it about __________ that is most important to you?

This may be the year you simply consider a different approach when a conversation gets complicated. Intentionally try something new, and observe what happens. If you are usually the aggressor, try pulling back and letting the other person “talk it out.” If you are normally the passive participant, try to engage more. Focus on the other person. Identify and understand the values and feelings that may be driving the other to say what they are saying. Or how they are saying it.

You may want to observe behaviors more this year. If someone comments about your lack of participation, respond that you are practicing listening more than in the past, and are interested in hearing what others want to say.

Now that you’ve taken time to read this far, I’ll give a nod to Barbara E. Kelly, PhD, LLC, who was in Memphis to facilitate a continuing education workshop on collaborative legal practice development. Though I am not an attorney, the topic is of interest to me as a Tennessee Supreme Count Civil Rule 31 Mediator, working primarily in business and higher education. Thanks to Barbara’s inspiration, you are reading this article. Thanks also to the unknown originators of the questions shared. Dr. Kelly is a licensed psychologist, certified family mediator, and collaborative practitioner. To learn more, go to www.kellypsychology.com

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