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How To Navigate Tricky Conversations In 8 Easy Steps


It’s going to be a long fall. What with the presidential election spinning out of control, things heating up on Facebook and in your living room, and talking heads at us all day long, just having a conversation is hard.

Peacemaking, acting as if the person matters more than winning an argument, is also hard, even more so when emotions run rampant and the stakes are high. Putting relationships over winning arguments may feel weak, but it is really valuing the humanity in the other person. And who does not want to be on the side of humanity?

Here’s help for those difficult conversations. First, some tips about how to prepare yourself.

1. Find the Love

Loving conversations start with a loving heart. Sometimes in the throes of a heated exchange, whether it’s about the election or explaining to Aunt Megan why you remain stubbornly unmarried, the farthest thing from our minds is that we love the person to whom we are talking. Remind yourself. You care about your father or Grandpa Ed or the neighbor across the street.

What about those trolls online, you say? Even if you are talking to some anonymous stranger on the Internet, the fact this person is a human being with his own story of hurts, failures, and triumphs should be—must be—enough to find a measure of respect. If you simply cannot summon any love or respect for your partner, what is the point of staying in the conversation? All we do must flow out of love. A reply to a tweet is no exception.

2. Remember the Long-term Goal

What is the goal—not of the conversation, but of the relationship? If your goal is to win an argument, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Science proves no argument has ever been won on the Internet, from the Stone Age until now, and precious few have been won at the kitchen table. Winning is a futile and frustrating goal.

Instead, paint a mental picture of what you want down the road. What do you want your relationship with your future adult children to be? How do you hope to be with your parents in their retirement years? Let this conversation, whatever it is, be a brick on the road to that goal.

Even with strangers, the goal is long-term. After all, we all have to live together after this election. We would all like to live in peace with one another. Let that be your guide.

3. Remember What You Do Not Know

The cantankerous uncle might be suffering from a painful medical problem. The surly teen might be afraid her parents are splitting up. The rude customer at the store might be coming from a funeral, and the outrageous guy on the Internet might be tenderly nursing a chronically ill wife. It is good to remind ourselves constantly that we do not know the full story of what is happening in someone’s life. If we did, we would surely have compassion.

Next, some tips about how to keep your focus during the conversation.

4. Listen

So hard to do, listening. We are usually so busy telling ourselves why the other party is wrong and marshaling our responses to their clearly inane statements that we often fail to hear what they are saying. Pay attention to the truth behind the words they say. Are they scared? Are they angry? Try to imagine the situation from their point of view. Try to imagine their feelings.

5. Repeat Back What They Said

This tactic is surprisingly effective and disarms a great deal of anger. When the other party says something you would like to refute, instead of refuting, simply repeat back to them what they said in different words. If they say “I cannot stand Hillary. She makes me want to throw up,” repeat back, “You really do not like Hillary.” You are not conceding their point; you are merely actively listening to them.

This simple trick does two things. First, it makes the other person feel heard, which helps them relax and changes the tone of an argument. Secondly, it gives you a bit of time to stall before you respond. If you are so shocked you don’t know what to say, it gives you something to say while your mental wheels churn.

6. Use I Messages

This is another classic technique that works wonders. You cannot control the other person, what they say, think, or do. So it is futile to say “You should think this” or “You should vote that way” or “You are going to be sorry.” None of us likes to be told what to do, and someone bossing us around only raises hackles.

Instead, tell your side using sentences that start with “I.” For instance: “I am afraid when I hear the tone of a Trump rally.” Or “I sometimes feel a bit worried I haven’t found a husband yet, Aunt Megan, but generally I feel confident it will all work out.” Even the most combative conversationalist cannot talk you out of how you feel.

7. Speak Truth Gently

Using active-listening techniques does not mean you agree with the person to whom you are speaking. On the contrary. A peacemaker does not make peace by caving to the other side. Instead, a peacemaker balances adherence to the truth with respect for the person to whom she is talking.

Never say something you believe to be untrue. But you can speak truth either kindly or aggressively. “I wish I could agree with you, but I just cannot get over what I think is racism in Trump’s message” is a lot easier to swallow than “Trump is a racist and you are too!”

8. Leaving the Conversation Is Fine

Sometimes getting out of a conversation that has degenerated into nastiness feels like losing, but only if your goal was to win. If you keep your goal in mind—to preserve a relationship, to further peace in our country, to build bridges instead of destroying them— gracefully exiting a conversation is a win. Go ahead and say you want to leave. Express respect for the person to whom you are talking, but be firm in your desire to change the subject.

Something along the lines of “I am sorry. I care about you, Aunt Megan, but I would prefer to talk about something else. Where did you get those beautiful earrings?” If necessary, leave the room. No one has the right to subject you to a conversation you would rather not participate in.