How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Building a Bridge of Mutual Understanding

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder. – Rumi

One of the most common sources of conflict among people is in the way we communicate. Oftentimes, conflicts do not arise because of the diversity of opinions and beliefs. Diversity is necessary for thought exchange and ultimate growth.

The true source of conflict, rather, is in the way we express our opinions and communicate disagreement. A blaming, sometimes even aggressive tone of voice can seep into our language, which invites confrontation instead of collaboration, and conveys a closed ‘my way or no way’ kind of approach.

Looking back on my past, I can recall myself during my childhood years, when anything felt possible. In my world, full of playfulness, creativity, and fun, things were straightforward and clear. Whenever I was hungry, I made sure my mother knew about that. When I was afraid, sad, or upset, I said so. Whenever I wanted anything, I asked for it.

Communication and conflictOne of the most common sources of conflict is in the way we communicate.

In this open communication space, there was no room for mind reading or making assumptions. I didn’t claim to know what other people felt or thought. If anything was unclear, I asked. I didn’t let my mind play with me and create scenarios about what other people had in their minds or hearts because I knew I wasn’t them. Life was quite simple, and the older I got, the stronger my need to complicate it became.

The Fine Art of Non-Violent Communication

Taking an honest look at my life as a grown-up woman, I came to realize I was often aggressive with people, without even being aware of it. I never screamed and yelled at people, but I expressed my thoughts and emotions aggressively, especially when I was trying to convey opinions I strongly believed in and get my voice heard.

That is an area I am still working on. However, I have spent a while reading about the field of non-violent communication, learning how to communicate with clarity and confidence in any situation and, by that, avoid unnecessary drama or confrontation. A few years ago, I started to apply this learning in my everyday life. Surprisingly, I could see how small adjustments in my communication helped me to improve my relationships with people in my personal life and career.

The problem with judgementWe judge others based on their actions, without knowing their intentions.

Here are three useful suggestions that helped me refine my communication skills and build bridges of mutual understanding with others:

1. Be Curious About Others

A major source of conflict comes from the fact that we tend to evaluate our own actions based on our intentions, yet judge others based on their actions, without knowing their intentions.

For instance, when I fear I might have offended someone with my words, my immediate reaction would be to explain myself and make it clear my true intention was not to hurt anyone: ”I am sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like that. My point is that…” However, when I didn’t like what I heard in a sensitive conversation, I used to jump immediately into a defensive or even aggressive posture, without even trying to understand more about what others wanted to tell me.

Blaming other people for the way I feel, act or think is disempowering. I can’t control what anyone says, but I am fully in charge of my emotions. No one can make me feel anything. No one can upset me, stress me or depress me unless I allow it. Whenever I find myself feeling frustrated or angry during difficult conversations, I have educated myself to take a long, deep breath. That helps me stay grounded and manage the way I feel.

Secondly, I learned how to ask questions with the genuine curiosity of a child. I want to know more about the story behind the words: the circumstances, the impact on the people involved, their intentions, and so on.

Blaming other peopleBlaming other people for the way you feel, act or think is disempowering.

Here are some of my favorite questions that help me do that:

  • How did this happen?
  • Can you tell me more about it?
  • What can we do to sort this out?

2. The Power of ‘What’

Let me ask you the same question, in two different ways. Say I’m disturbed by your words. I could choose to either reply with, “Why are you saying that?” or I could ask, ”What makes you say that?”

Can you feel the difference between the two questions? Don’t you feel like the ‘why’ question sounds more accusatory than the other?

In reality, we only judge what we don’t understand, so I make sure I stay away from confusion. People can only be responsible for what they say, not for what I understand. And no one is a mind reader.

When asked ‘why,’ people tend to feel blamed. As a consequence, they either shut up entirely or go into a defensive mode, trying to justify themselves. Meanwhile, the ‘what’ questions invite an open discussion and transparent communication. They help bring more balance, harmony, and peace during sensitive conversations.

Listening as a form of loveBeing able to listen to another person is a form of love.

3. The Importance of Listening

I will be brutally honest with this one: In the past, I used to be very self-absorbed and eager to take space in conversations. I used to listen in order to know what to say next instead of being fully present for others with mind, body and soul, so that I could understand their perspectives and points of view. I tended to interrupt others in the attempt of explaining or defending myself. In other words, conversations were generally a lot about me, not so much about others.

Sometimes, the only thing we have to do in a situation that might look like a conflict or disagreement is to hear what other people have to say with genuine care, curiosity, compassion, and attention.

In my case, I had to learn how to listen actively. During conversations, I imagined myself having a zipper on my mouth, closing that zipper while people were talking, and allowing myself to open the zipper only once they finished. This simple exercise helped me to get present and focused on the other person, both in my personal life and career.

In a world where most people love to talk about themselves, being able to listen to another person is a form of love.