Having a Conversation To Learn

Emotionally charged conversations that turn into conflicts have often gotten off the rails because they deny the perspective of the other person or the perspective of multiple others.  They display inflexibility and tunnel vision not the possibility of mutual resolution This can happen when you adopt a super rational, logical approach to the content of the conversation but infuse the conversation with emotion noticeable by tone of voice, body sensations and type of language used. Equally, it can happen when you are venting or in the company of a person who is venting when there is no attempt to notice the context of others in the situation.

“Take a step back to see whether you are reacting or responding?”

Our thoughts and feelings provide us with important information. You can choose to use that information or not; to act on that information or not. How often are you mistaken into thinking your feelings are true? Your feelings may be real, but are they true? They may be an accurate reflection of your reality but are they an accurate reflection of the situation? Acting without reflection, that is impulsively towards another person, can provide cues that trigger the recipient to feel blamed, shamed, or intimidated, dismissed etc (they can then move into “flight or fight mode”, either attacking, becoming defensive or avoiding the interaction altogether). The outcome is usually that the conversation has missed the mark and has been unsuccessful. You may want to go back and try to understand what happened and try to rectify the communication issue.

“Strangely enough, you are not your thought and feelings.  You do not have to accept everything that comes into your head as true.”

The content of what you say is nearly always impacted by how you say something. Often, you are unaware that you are feeling something and conveying that feeling as you speak. For example, a person who feels contemptuous nearly always acts contemptuously. In so doing a person shows immense disrespect towards another person. Mindfulness practice, carried out before the conversation, allows you an opportunity to notice the feelings and thoughts that may drive you, allows you to take a step back and reflect on whether you choose to treat these thoughts as worthy of reality or simply to let your perceptions pass. If you are prone to “saying what you think” as though this were true, you can threaten to derail a difficult conversation before it starts.  

The good news is you can come to notice what thoughts and emotions are present, rather than denying they exist, believing in them as true, blurting them out to the world, before they take over. We can use our thoughts and emotions as information to constructively build a better response set in a conversation (David, 2016). It may be hard to comprehend, but you are not our thoughts and feelings “in the moment” and you do not have to accept everything that comes into your head as true, let alone act on them.

“Prepare well for a difficult conversation.”

Before any difficult conversation, prepare yourself with a mindfulness exercise. Deep breathing (4 deep, slow breaths in and out) and smiling (however awkwardly) can alter our brain’s response to negative thoughts and feelings while we are having them. Name the emotions that arise as you sit with your practice (don’t analyse your emotions; just notice them, be curious, let them settle). Notice any sensations in your body as you notice and name the emotion and breathe through and with the emotion. This will defuse some of the intensity. Make sure that you feel calm enough to commence your difficult conversation and you are clear about the way you are feeling.  

“Are you having a conversation to learn or to be right?”

Now, before going into the conversation, attend to the assumptions you are making in having this conversation in the first place. Do you want to be right and show how the other person is wrong or do you want to seek understanding?  

Despite intentions, often our initial purpose for having a difficult conversation is often to prove a point and give a person a piece of our mind: to tell the person what to do, how to act, what to do. We enter a battle of messages with the aim of winning. We are right. They are wrong. This is the way it is. A conversation to be right is very different from a conversation to learn. A conversation to learn does not suit all contexts but it is one kind of difficult conversation that requires self-reflection and mutual understanding.

Changing the stance from a conversation to be right to a conversation to learn invites the other person into a partnership to figure out what is happening between you. To explore where the differences lie. This may initially threaten your identity by acknowledging you cannot be right all the time, nor do you need to be. We have lots to learn from others and they have lots to learn from us. Taking a step back to reflect on your own thoughts and feelings, acknowledging the central role of others who may have a different perspective in the conversation is beneficial for both parties. Once you can respect the differences, you can find the common ground and commence joint problem solving. It allows for multiple perspectives to be heard.  

Try it and see!

  1. Adapted from David, S (2016). Emotional Agility.UK: Penguin. Random House.

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