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How NOT to Start a Crucial Conversation

Pamela Jett 12-17

How NOT to Start a Crucial ConversationI recently had a discussion with someone very close to me about a very difficult and emotionally charged situation for both of us.  Over the course of a few days we had numerous conversations about the situation, most of which went very smoothly.  However, one of the conversations was especially challenging for me.  I had to struggle not to get defensive.  I had to struggle to be the master of my emotions and not let my emotions be the master of me.  I had to work very hard for a positive conversational outcome.  And, I am confident my conversational partner had to do the same.

As I look back over this tough conversation, I wondered “what triggered me?”  “Why was this conversation more difficult emotionally than all the others on the same topic over the past few days?”  What I realized is that the first words out of my conversational partner’s mouth triggered defensiveness that I had to work hard to overcome.  These words, on some level, were insulting to me and I struggled from that moment forward.  While unintentional, my conversational partner provided an example of how NOT to start a crucial conversation.

“I know you don’t understand”  were the trigger words for me.  Here is what they produced in me and what they might produce in others if you use them during a crucial conversation:

  • I felt the urge to say “yes I do” in a defensive fashion.
  • I felt insulted – as if all the effort to be a good listener, to be open minded, and empathetic during previous conversations on the subject was not only wasted, but unappreciated.
  • I felt the urge to “correct”, to put on my “communication expert” hat and explain that there is a difference between not understanding and not agreeing.

All of these responses would have been counter-productive, would have taken the conversation in the wrong direction, and likely would have made my conversational partner feel defensive.

So what could have been used instead of “I know you don’t understand?”   Here are some options:

  • You may see it differently.
  • You might not agree.
  • I’ m aware we have different thoughts, feelings on this.
Each of these options demonstrates an understanding that agreeing and understanding are two separate things.  And by avoiding “You don’t understand” you are less likely to trigger defensiveness in others.  Making this small change can make a big difference during a crucial conversation.



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