How to Have Uncomfortable Conversations and Navigate Disagreements

cover art for CBaS episode 96 on how to navigate difficult conversations and disagreements

What we are trying to create in a conversation is heart connectedness, to truly lean in with 10% at least of willingness to say, I am going to enjoy this conversation. I am going to learn something new in this conversation. That way we have 90% to disagree with.

Sunitha Narayanan

Even if you accept this, and want to find the 10% connection, it’s not necessarily easy. It takes practice.

Preparing for a Conversation

Before going into a conversation, especially a challenging one, think about the emotions that are connected to it. Name your emotions and acknowledge them. You may want to talk to a trusted friend to process your emotions. The goal is to be able to share your emotions in the conversation without being emotional at that moment. So take the time you need to feel and process your own emotions.

Having a Conversation

Be careful not to carry your emotions into the conversation and change them into judgments, blame, or characterizations. Don’t try to control the situation, being dictatorial rather than consultative. In a conversation, there are two sides and it’s as important to listen to the other person and find points of agreement with them, as to share your own perspective.

I remember this idea from his book, Think Again. In the book, he shares research that shows that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the type of conflict matters. We want less relationship conflict but more task conflict. Task conflict allows us to challenge our assumptions and have difficult conversations. This is where learning happens rather than in “agreeing to disagree”.

Task conflict is a disagreement over how to accomplish a particular task. Relationship conflict is a disagreement rooted in personality or personal beliefs.

If people have relationship conflicts, they don’t work well together because they can’t put aside their personal dislikes to focus on the task. On the other hand, with task conflicts, they are able to figure out their approaches to that conflict and work together. If it’s personal, people shut down and see things negatively. If it’s external, focused on a task, then people can share their varying perspectives, have a debate, make some decisions. They can work together.

Adam Grant wants us to know that conflict and disagreement have a place in our development and our lives. In a NY Times article encouraging kids to start fighting, Grant says:

If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones. Disagreement is the antidote to groupthink. We’re at our most imaginative when we’re out of sync.

Adam Grant

I’ve definitely noticed that some people shut down at the first sign of disagreement while others thrive. I enjoy having conversations with people I don’t agree with. I wonder what I’ll learn. I’m not always as free of my ego as I’d like to be but I don’t consider disagreements as harmful to a relationship. In fact, I’ve become good friends with people that I initially disagreed with and I have friends where we disagree on particular ideas. I see it as us having different stories, not as one of us being wrong or right. The key is to not personalize the conflict, so it’s not you’re a bad person, dumb, rude, unreasonable, etc, but rather being specific about the processes and behaviors that are points of disagreement.

10 Reminders to make it easier to have uncomfortable conversations, and to navigate through disagreements

  1. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, there’s a good chance that another person in the conversation is too. What can you do to make the other person comfortable? You might find that makes you feel more comfortable as well.
  2. Leave room for reciprocation. Interrupt yourself to give the other person a chance to talk or to extricate themselves from the conversation. When we’re nervous, we tend to repeat ourselves rather than leaving silence. It’s helpful to get more comfortable with silence.
  3. If you want to talk about something specific, prepare the other person; don’t spring a difficult conversation on someone. You’ve had a chance to prepare and give them a chance to do so too.
  4. For non-casual conversations, give yourself more time than you think that you need. This allows time to address each person’s needs and to empathize.
  5. Figure out your conversational style and be explicit about your needs. Your needs can also change during the conversation. Don’t be afraid to ask for time, space, etc. If you are getting tired or notice someone else is, have a break. Powering through is unlikely to be productive as listening will suffer.
  6. Tease apart intent and impact. Be considerate of your impact and assume positive intent. This helps you see that someone else might not have intended a negative impact and it also leaves space to acknowledge the actual impact. It allows grace for yourself and for the other person. Apologize authentically when needed.
  7. Be genuinely interested and curious in the other person and in the way they think, especially when they disagree with you. Look for points of agreement to draw closer together. You don’t have to be disagreeable in general even if you are not completely aligned with the other person.
  8. Share your emotions with people and give context of why you are feeling that way, if it’s appropriate.
  9. Go straight to the source, 1:1, directly, without intermediaries and having other people pile on, wherever possible. Send a DM, request a call, etc, following whichever communication pathways are available.
  10. Empathize and support. Don’t switch the conversation to yourself or bring in your own (worse) example of a situation when someone shares something. That is narcissistic behavior.

From my own personal experience, there are a couple of red flags for me. If someone is condescending to me or patronizing, basically if they say something that implies I’m stupid or inferior to them in some way, I speak up. I won’t let that go unchallenged.

As Adam Grant reminds us,

“When we try to convince people to think again, our first instinct is usually to start talking. Yet the most effective way to help others open their minds is often to listen.”

Adam Grant

How to Have a Conversation with Anyone

Some people find it really uncomfortable to be in different situations. Sunitha provided lots of examples of phrases that you can use, and shared how you can make your own conversation toolkit. There are some tips that you can apply to any situation to be able to build connections with someone.

You can pick up possible topics of conversation from the environment or you can ask for a recommendation or suggestion. Or try to get the person talking about themselves.

  • How did you get here?
  • How do you know the host?
  • What do you think about… the food?
  • That’s a really cool painting/instrument/etc. in your background. I’m curious to know more about it.
  • What do you like to do here? 
  • Where did you get that?
  • Great music/play/food …

Actively look for clues and commonalities in a person’s environment or things that could help you get to know the person better.

Use context to decide what works and notice what sparks the user. One question I started asking in interviews recently was what excites you about the topic. Excitement is energizing and I want to bring energy to my conversations. Come up with your own question that you could pull out in different situations, something more interesting than “what do you do”? I don’t enjoy traditional small talk because it often remains superficial. But what if we change that? What if we can get to know someone in a conversation by asking interesting questions, elevated beyond the weather? Here are a few:

  • What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?
  • Where would you rather be than here?
  • Where would you be if you weren’t here right now?

If you’re going to an event, you can prepare based on the type of event. Plan some questions that you think will work with the crowd or some stories you’d like to share. The challenging thing here is to go with the flow of the conversation. Save the prepared questions for lulls rather than trying to fit them all in. Don’t miss a great point or opportunity to connect because you’re thinking of your next question. It’s not an interview 🙂 Lulls are okay and natural, and they give the other person a chance to ask their own questions.

One question that remains for me in this conversation, and something I wish I’d asked is about the difference between virtual conversation and face-to-face. We have a lot more information in face-to-face conversations, where we can read body language. It’s more difficult to do that in video chats and impossible in text-based conversations.

You can connect with Damianne on the Changes BIG and small website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. You’re also invited to join the Changes BIG and small Facebook community.

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Quick Links

  • Think Again, Adam Grant


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