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The power of difficult conversations

Dec 10, 2020
5 min Read

How Do We Have Difficult Conversations in Our Current Environment?

Nine-months into a global pandemic, and a month off of a contentious presidential election, we sit in a place of uncertainty. We wait for health professionals to disseminate a vaccine and we hold our breath as a second, fiercer wave of Covid overtakes hospital beds, healthcare workers, and families across the globe. We are in crisis. We are trying to manage work from home (if we’re lucky), while we supervise school for our children, wondering if they will be able to go back to school five days a week and if our college students are safe on campus. We fear that we’ll have to go back to stock piling toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, and pray that our jobs won’t be on the chopping block. We are in survival mode. Coupled with the divisive political commentary that abounds on social media and around kitchen tables, we thought we knew what our siblings and neighbors believed until we caught site of their Instagram posts and Tweets. Now, we wonder how we’ve lived next to them all of these years and not known that they were so different—or, are they?

How do we connect with our family, friends and neighbors to rebuild what seems to be broken? Now, more than ever, people need to be able to really hear one another and share their perspectives on the world around us. We need to help each other rise, but it’s hard when we’re fighting about whether we should wear masks or gather for the holidays. How do we have the difficult conversations that are necessary to have in our current environment?

The answer lies in each of us! In Stone, Patton, and Heen’s quintessential text, “Difficult Conversations [How to Discuss What Matters Most],” we recognize that the power of diving into controversial or raw subject matter starts with you.

The first step is deciding that a relationship with the other (partner, roommate, parent, friend, colleague, neighbor) is worthwhile and that it will require time, investment, compassion and more active listening than talking.

Here’s how to begin and what to consider:

  • Go to the Balcony and Invite the Other to Share Their Story First. Pretend that you’re watching the conversation from 30 feet above. What do you see? What is the other sharing? Why does it matter to him/her/them? What are they doing with their body, facial expressions? How does it make you feel? What does their opinion/perspective say about their identity? What does their opinion say about your identity?
  • Choose to Actively Listen-Without formulating a response in real time
  • Decide that the Other Person’s Perspective Matters as Much as Yours—and within the confines of the conversation, choose to be a journalist—be wedded to, as clearly and compassionately as possible, understanding the what, where, why, when and how of the other’s perspective. You may not even share your own perspective until the next conversation.
  • Move from Certainty to Curiosity. In a world where everyone knows the right answer - and we seek to demonize the other for not believing what we believe make a choice to move away from judgement toward curiosity. You do not have to agree to become momentarily interested in learning more. Ask good, open-ended questions to elicit both information and feelings. For example, tell me more about why that matters to you. Give me an example of how you see that playing out. How would we implement that in the community? When I posted that image, how did that make you feel?
  • Disentangle Intent from Impact. All too often, when someone says something or writes something that we vehemently disagree with, we believe that they intended to wound us personally. Rarely, are people that intentional in the world. Our job is to share how the action made us feel with the other, and get curious about why they chose to say or act in the way they did-by reserving judgement and asking good questions. i.e. When you posted a picture of Kamala Harris as a role model for the country, it made me feel that you value the things she stands for—which was hurtful to me. Can we talk about her policies that you agree with so that I can learn more?
  • Validate and Acknowledge the Other’s Story. After you’ve truly taken the time to understand the other person’s perspective, now you need to demonstrate it by repeating it back to them and validating the importance of it. You may not agree with it-but that’s not the point. They believe in it. And because they matter to you, acknowledging and honoring it frees them from having to continually defend it.
  • Ask for Permission to Share Your Own Story. After you’ve taken the time to intentionally listen to the other’s story, and you’ve honored the feelings connected to those beliefs—now is the opportunity to ask if you can share your perspective.
  • Seek to Find Common Ground and Build from the Third Side. Human beings are not so unalike. We all seek to love and be loved. We yearn to belong. We want to feel safe and to provide our children with the best life possible. We want opportunity, prosperity and ultimately, happiness. These values often equate to respect, free will, agency, and choice over our circumstances. Because we want similar values—in difficult conversations, we can begin at that foundational space. i.e. We are both students on campus at Creighton. We both want to do well and graduate with opportunity in the marketplace/world. We want to be safe and to see our friends healthy as well. How can we live/learn/work/share together while abiding by these values? What creative options can we brainstorm collectively?
  • Share Gratitude (Give Thanks) for the Other’s Willingness to Try. A difficult conversation doesn’t happen once with the other. If you care about the relationship, you will go back again and again to keep trying, learning, and growing—no matter how frustrating or hard it feels. Thanking the other for their contribution helps them to feel seen, heard, noticed and valued.

Timing for difficult conversations is key. While you may be ready to invest in the relationship or difficult conversation, the other person might night be ready. Their choice to not engage constructively is not a reflection of you—particularly if you’ve invited the hearing and honoring of their story.

After having a difficult conversation, you cannot underestimate the power of reaching back out to the other to try again—after each party has had time to process the experience. The goal in re-connecting is to say that this difficult conversation wasn’t an opportunity to get my point across—it was a chance to learn and grow from the exchange. Reconnecting is an opportunity to share with the other what you’ve been thinking about in between conversations—and how something they shared has given you pause, room for meditation/reflection.

There is significant value and benefit to making a conscious choice to have a difficult conversation. Practice breeds empathy, stronger relationships and sometimes even change. The goal is not agreement. The goal is deeper connection, and the development of tenacity and grit to go back again and again to challenge the conversation more intensely.

This article was written by Kelly Gering. Kelly is a special faculty member in Creighton University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution graduate program, where she teaches classes that include topics like having difficult conversations. Kelly is the owner of Shared Story (, a private conflict engagement/resolution practice that provides mediation, facilitation, and training services to families, corporations, non-profit organizations, faith-based entities and the community at large. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy & Sociology from Lake Forest College and a Master of Arts degree in Conflict Resolution from Antioch University McGregor. Appointed by the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Office of Dispute Resolution, Kelly serves as an approved Parenting Act Mediator and is also on the board of the Nebraska Mediation Association.

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