Difficult conversations

Rohini’s good friend keeps forgetting to repay her after borrowing money. After the seventh or eighth instance, Rohini tells herself that she is not going to loan her any more cash. But when she is in the college canteen, and her friend looks at her with plaintive eyes, Rohini gives in yet again, kicking herself inside.

Puneet is dating a former college friend for over a year and is quite serious about the relationship. Yet, he desists from telling his parents as he feels he will hurt their traditional sentiments. In the meantime, his parents are busy scouting for prospective brides on matrimonial sites. Puneet continues to act as if he is simply not interested in marriage.

Balancing art

Often, we hesitate to broach a touchy issue for fear of hurting another person. However, by holding back, we are not only harming our self-interests, but are also possibly jeopardising our relationships. While it is not easy to have some conversations, avoiding them is not the solution. Between the two extremes of a headlong confrontation or a complete skirting of the issue, is there a balanced middle-ground that can possibly lead to meaningful outcomes?

In their book, Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen argue that we can have a productive exchange regarding a sensitive topic provided we change our stance about the issue.

Instead of seeing our role as that of delivering a message to the other party, we need to engage in a “learning conversation.” In most discussions involving prickly or volatile issues, we need to attend not only to what is said but also to unstated feelings and thoughts. In fact, the authors suggest that these unspoken aspects are at the core of these conversations. Thus, in order to have a meaningful dialogue, we need to shake off many of our assumptions and enter into the conversation with an open mind that is willing to explore and understand the perspective of the other party.

Making headway

It is essential that we avoid an argumentative or confrontational stance if we genuinely want to make headway in the relationship.

We need to accept that the purpose of a conversation is not to prove who is right but to understand each other’s perspectives so that we can possibly work towards a resolution of the current issue. In order to have a sincere and significant dialogue, we have to forgo the idea that we are right and the other party has wronged us. An adversarial approach will cloud us from seeing their point of view. As the authors say, “Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in.”

They also dissuade us from playing the blame game. The moment you start accusing the other person, you put them on the back foot and they are likely to raise their defensive hoods. Instead, you may start by admitting your contribution, however passive, to the current situation. For example, in the above situation, Rohini may have inadvertently encouraged her friend to borrow money from her by not saying anything about it the first few times. While Rohini feels that it is her friend’s duty to pay her back, she cannot assume that she understands her friend’s intentions. Perhaps, the friend has intended to pay her back, but has not yet done so for various reasons. Acknowledging her role may make it easier for the friend to present her point of view.

Unacknowledged feelings

People also tend to hold on to the mistaken notion that emotions get in the way of having productive exchanges. But Stone, Patton and Heen write that unacknowledged feelings are often at the heart of touchy conversations.

Not addressing these feelings has many costs. First, we are likely to be saddled with “outcomes that are unsatisfying to both people.” Second the authors warn, “Unexpressed feelings can block the ability to listen.” Further, even if we decide not to talk about feelings explicitly, they have a way of creeping into the conversation. Try as we might, it is difficult for anyone to completely control their tone of voice and body language. Thus, while the authors encourage us to share our feelings, they caution us about not confusing our feelings with “attributions or judgments.” For example, in the anecdote described, Puneet did not tell his parents about his girl friend because he was scared of their reaction. But instead of describing his insecurity and hesitancy, he may accuse his parents of being close-minded. This, in turn, would make them defensive and they might then react with counter-accusations.

We also have to be circumspect about how our sense of identity might be threatened by the conversation, advise the authors. Puneet is holding back from revealing his romantic interests partly because he loves his parents dearly and does not want to be diminished in their eyes. Being a good son is an integral part of his identity and hence he is refraining from telling his conservative parents that he has found his own bride. In such instances, the authors counsel us that we avoid “all-or-nothing” thinking. Just because he has found his own girl does not make Puneet a bad son, even if his parents make the insinuation. All people and relationships, especially intimate ones, are complex and layered. Acknowledging that people have different shades to their personalities will shield us from black and white judgments. By shedding our inhibitions but holding back on judgments, we can venture forth to have productive exchanges that can alter the quality of our lives.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

We need to accept that the purpose of aconversation

is not to prove who is right but to understand each

other’s perspectives so that we can possibly work

towards a resolution of the current issue.