There’s a certain Peterborough, NH road that makes me wince when I drive on it. The liberally sprinkled potholes make it annoying and difficult to get from one end of that short road to the other, make me worry about damage to an axle, and certainly create a bouncy ride that even my dogs notice unhappily. Like potholes in a road, certain “potholes of the mind” reduce the effectiveness of a difficult conversation. (My thanks to Daniel Yankelovich, author of The Magic of Dialogue (affiliate link), for the phrase “potholes of the mind.”).
Being certain. Certainty locks you into your conclusions and prevents you from using a critical conflict resolution skill—curiosity. The selective perceptions created by certainty cause you to single out information that supports a belief and filter out information that might disconfirm it. In a negotiation or other difficult conversation, practice the art of uncertainty.
Diagnosing. 19th century English statesman Sir John Lubbock said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” When you diagnose another person (“passive-aggressive,” “irresponsible”) and then use a difficult conversation trying to fix their problem, you disempower yourself, limit the potential of the conversation to a narrow fix, and put the other in a box they’ll probably try fight their way out of. Leave the diagnosing to counselors.
Avoiding. People sometimes avoid confronting a problem because they’re uncomfortable with the prospect, think it’s more work than it’s worth, or worry that they’ll bruise the relationship in the process. While it’s wise to choose your battles, avoidance of important conflicts may do more damage to the relationship than engaging it would, because each subsequent annoyance puts another brick in the wall between you. Deal with an important conflict if you want to improve the relationship.
Arguing positionally. Positional arguing leads to solutions in which one or both parties necessarily give something up: Compromise (“Let’s each give up something”), appeal to higher authority (“Let’s have so-and-so decide”), trade-offs (“If you give me x, I’ll give you y”), and use of power (“I have more power and I’m going to use it to get you to do what I want”). Collaborative problem-solving focuses on interests to yield mutually acceptable solutions, which are more likely to stand the test of time. Interests are people’s underlying needs, the reasons they take the positions they do. Educate yourself about interests (and read “Getting to Yes” for more information on interests).
Being too committed to positional goals. If you’re telling yourself that your goal in a difficult conversation is to “get her to…” or “make him…” or “convince her that…” or anything of a similar ilk, you’re setting yourself up for a defensive exchange because you’re essentially naming your solution as part of your goal—and if your solution worked for the other person, you probably wouldn’t still have a conflict. Impartially name the problem to be solved without implying your solution at the same time.
Solving different problems. Before proceeding too far into a difficult conversation, make sure you and the other person are not on different train tracks. Even subtle differences in how you each name the problem you think you’re solving together can lead to a more convoluted and frustrating discussion. Get joint clarity up front.
Listening with your answer running. Most people can’t fully listen to and absorb what another is communicating while concurrently planning their response or looking for a place to jump in. Listening with your answer running results in an internally focused conversation that prevents you from truly hearing and understanding. Let go of planning your response and you may be surprised by what you’ll learn.
Moving too quickly to problem-solving. Good problem solving involves first having a thorough and complex enough understanding of the problem to be able to identify the most effective solutions. Instead of 20% of time spent on understanding and 80% on problem-solving, try flipping these percentages. In important conflicts, time spent on the front end usually saves time in the long run.
Forging ahead when you’re emotionally hijacked. When you’re triggered by a perceived threat–such as by another’s actions or words–your brain’s amygdala, which is like an emotional tripwire, primes you for impulsive reaction and your prefrontal cortex dampers such reactions to allow a more thoughtful response. But, in “emotional emergencies,” such as in conflict, your rational mind can get swamped by your emotional one. Emotional hijackings need effective interruptions to prevent further swamping that will likely yield unhelpful reactions. Continuing a difficult conversation when you’re emotionally hijacked is like continuing to row far from shore while your boat fills with water.
This article was originally published in the The Monadnock Ledger.