How focusing on the right thing to say makes it easy to forget a key factor in resolving conflict
A friend called yesterday anxious about an upcoming conversation with his wife. Historically, talking about this one specific problem never ended well. They would always end in an argument.
He wanted to brainstorm what to say. Instead, I asked where they usually had these conversations. Confused at the relevance of my question, he answered, “At home.”
I then asked where they had the best conversations about difficult subjects. He didn’t answer me directly but shared a story about once visiting a spa. Somehow, they opened up into a deeper conversation.
A client last week was also preparing for a difficult conversation with her husband; one that typically ended in a fight. She wanted to know what to say. As we explored the topic, I asked “When and where do you usually talk about these things?”
Her response was that they always talked about things in the kitchen after their daughter was in bed. As we unpacked the layers, she realised that the kitchen and house had a whole lot of triggers for them both.
I recall a particularly challenging conversation I once had in the workplace with a colleague. Stress grew into frustration, which quickly became dismissive. All of this could have been avoided through more awareness of the setting and conditions that lead to healthy dialogue.
What makes a conversation work?
It is easy to think the key dimension of a difficult conversation is what to say and how to say it. From my own experience, there are four main factors at play:
The emotional state of each person.
The physical space in which the conversation occurs.
Clarity in what to communicate.
The ability to listen non-judgmentally.
From experience, we tend to focus on 3 and 4. In actuality, it is the first two factors that provide the environment and conditions that make communication easy.
And, if the first two aren’t looked after, the latter will be very difficult to establish. It is like walking across a freshly frozen lake after the first frost — it won’t be long before the ground gives way.
It is important to establish a strong and stable environment and ground on which to have difficult conversations.
Difficult conversations don’t only happen in intimate relationships. They also happen between friends and colleagues. Being aware of the impact of space on someone’s emotional safety and state is important.
When an environment triggers
Any environment can have triggers. Whether a household or a workplace, the space can be reminders of unfinished business (unwashed dishes), past challenging conversations, and even power imbalances.
When having a difficult conversation in the home, the space itself almost becomes an invisible third person. Without knowing it, it is easy to bring aspects that aren’t relevant to the conversation in when triggered by the space.
Furthermore, having difficult conversations in the home can also pollute the space. Waking up the next day can trigger a reminder of the conversation the night before. Have too many of those and the feeling is hard to shake.
The right time
Creating the right conditions is about finding the right time as much as the right place. This can be particularly challenging for parents who need to wait for when the children are in bed.
Having difficult conversations when tired or late at night may not always be best for being in the best emotional state. Choosing a time when both parties are relaxed, alert, and prepared is helpful.
Finding a time and a place to be out of the house and away from family responsibilities can be valuable. Seeking support to look after children can be helpful.
The best place
This article is not meant to be prescriptive as the best time and location may be different for everyone. A better way to explore this may be to ask the question: What places have you noticed to be most effective in creating a sense of connection and opening up a deep conversation?
I know some people who find road trips to be great ways to have deep conversations. Conversely, I know of others for whom this doesn’t work at all. Car trips can be very claustrophobic if one party feels they cannot escape.
One partner and I would go for a nature walk to chat about difficult subjects. Walking allowed us to have our own time for thinking between pauses in conversation, and nature has an easy way of disarming tension.
A friend recently realised that she and her children were constantly having difficult conversations about their absent father. She realised how present his energy was in the house. Choosing to take these important conversations outside to the patio helped to not bring that energy into the home.
Treating space as sacred
For me, the home is a sacred space. I am conscious about who I invite into it and the kinds of conversations I have there.
It isn’t about avoiding difficult conversations, and inevitably deeper conversations will open up in the home. In those cases, I embrace the experience and do my best.
I’ve also learned to be conscious about creating space that works for both parties. It is important to not assume that what works for you may not work for the other person.
And equally, workplaces can be treated as sacred spaces as well. In one workplace we had a large park next door. We’d often go outside to the park to have difficult conversations. It was a neutral place that didn’t carry the power imbalances of a traditional office.
Reflecting on what works for you
Before trying this in your own relationships, perhaps start by thinking about both the places where your best and most difficult conversations happen. Do you notice any patterns?
Then, once you have this understanding, you can share your experience and ask the same questions of your friends, partner, or colleague. Creating awareness of when and where conversations are most healthy and conducive for you can help set you up for success.