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Moving Forward Through Challenging Conversations

Methods to have a challenging conversation that will clear the air and ultimately, help you move forward together.

This is the fifth article in a series on collaboration and conflict resolution. Read the introduction to the entire series.

There is an art to addressing a troubling issue that comes up between individuals or within a group. Many of us developed patterns in life to avoid conflict, confrontation, or an unpleasant conversation. However, the consequences of remaining silent can be significant. Without clear understanding, firm words and, in some cases, correction of problematic behavior, the capacity to collaborate suffers.

The structure of a positive conversation has some basic elements that you must consider:

  • Time and space to speak and listen
  • The right people present
  • Sufficient privacy so people will speak candidly
  • Respectful engagement (self-control or enough structure to maintain control and assure mutual respect)

 Leaders have an important role to foster an environment where these conversations can happen. The cohesion and functioning of the neighborhood association will be shaped by how problematic behavior or violated expectations are dealt with and leaders must model the way.

 Follow these guidelines for challenging conversations:

  • Avoid surprises: Let the person(s) know what you want to talk about and schedule an appropriate time and place. Seek their agreement about the way to have the discussion. Consider whether you need ground rules and/or a third party.
  • Deepen the Listening: Summarize the issue at the start of the meeting and ask for their perspective before you spend too much time laying out everything that you want to say. Try to ‘chunk down’ the discussion into parts of the issue or problem so there is a balance back and forth on both sides between talking, listening, and looping back. “Before we move on to talk about ________, I would like to summarize what I have heard so far and see if I have missed anything.”
  • Use Precise Words: When you speak, make clear distinctions between facts (I observed that…), emotions (When you … [facts/observations]…, I felt angry/sad/ worried), needs or values (It is important to me that I receive _____.), and beliefs/assumptions/judgments. (I think that the most workable approach is _______.)
  • Maintain Control: Do not allow their words or emotions to provoke a reaction from you. Remain under self-control. Exchanging heated words is only a non-listening argument. Keep the pace moderate and the tone calm.
  • One Step at a Time: It may not be possible to reach agreement or resolve the issue. Acknowledge the differences in perspective, goals, and expectations. Discuss what the next step is. Keep the line of communication open between the two of you. “I see that you are not persuaded by my idea. This issue is important to both of us and I want to think about what you have said. May I call you next Monday evening to check in about any additional thoughts?”
People have two ears and one tongue. Nature's way of saying listen more, speak less. ~ New Mexico dicho (proverb)