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3 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations With Grace

Written by Emily Malkowski

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Posted on December 08 2020

It goes without saying that 2020 has been, and will likely continue to be, a tough year for just about everyone. As we continue to face the global COVID-19 pandemic, the results of our recent presidential election, the nation’s long overdue reckoning over racial injustices, and plenty more, it’s safe to say that none of us will be making it out of this year without having at least one difficult conversation with someone in our lives.

Maybe you need to tell a friend that you don’t feel comfortable attending their non-socially distant party, or find yourself navigating a tense conversation about politics at the family dinner table this holiday season. Whatever your situation may be, here are 3 expert tips on how to handle having difficult conversations in the most healthy, constructive way possible.

Don’t be afraid to be silent

In the heat of the moment, it’s so easy to clap back with the first response you can think of. After all, if you’re having an argument of any kind, you’re probably feeling a bit defensive by default. But if you can, try to lean into moments of silence and use them to really listen instead of rushing to get in your next quip or trying to fill an awkward silence.

“Some of the best breakthroughs I’ve seen in really difficult conversations have emerged out of a brief period of silence,” Adar Cohen, a conflict resolution expert based in Illinois and cofounder of the Civic Leadership Foundation said in a TED talk. “Don’t rush in to rescue everyone from that awkward moment; it’s your job to show them that moment is okay.”

Let’s be real: when you’re in a heated argument, all parties involved could probably benefit from having a moment to reflect and collect themselves before moving on. And like we’ve all probably learned the hard way at some point— you can’t take things back once you say them.

Ask as many questions as possible

When you do find that appropriate time to speak, it helps to try to prioritize asking as many questions as possible. This shouldn’t be done in a demeaning way, of course; these questions should come from a genuine place of trying to better understand the issue at hand.

“Be curious and ask questions not to defeat the other person, but to move toward mutual understanding about where the differences and tension points are or why there is a disagreement,” Humboldt Scholar and author Darrell L. Bock writes.

When both parties feel at least a baseline level of understanding (or at least an authentic attempt at understanding) the argument suddenly gets framed as “us vs. the problem” rather than “me vs. you.” Not only does this help release some pressure so that a constructive conversation can actually take place, but it also reminds people that at the end of the day, they’re still on the same team, working towards the same end goal.

Take a break if you need it

Remember, if you start to feel tired or increasingly overwhelmed during a particularly difficult situation, it’s completely okay to call a timeout. Sometimes we need to give ourselves space to cool off and come back to it when we’re in a better headspace- that doesn’t mean the conversation has to end, it just means that maybe not everything needs to get wrapped up in a neat little bow today. Plus, coming back with a clear head when you’re emotions aren’t running so hot can also help you come at it more objectively when you do come back to it, too. 

“The bottom line is that when we find ourselves in this fight, flight, or freeze state of mind, then no amount of talking will ever lead to creative problem-solving because we are not in the right state of mind anymore for solving problems creatively,” registered Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist Dr. Nathan Cobb said in an article on his practice’s website.

And if all else fails, just remember that we’re all doing our best right now. This year has been chock full of unprecedented situations in just about every way imaginable, so if you need a brief mental and emotional break, by all means, take it. 

Even if it might not feel like it right now, this too shall pass. You got this!

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