Conversations in Quicksand……how to talk about tricky topics!

Two threads weave together. The first thread was from two conversations I had this week. One was a pricing conversation with a carpenter. The other conversation was with a friend about her concerns about parenting and grandparenting in 2021.

The second thread was coming across a book about the art of conversation on my bookshelf  by Douglas Stone  called Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most.

In it he says………….The single most important thing you can do is shift your internal stance from I understand to Help me understand…everything else follows from that. Often we go through an entire conversation- or indeed an entire relationship- without realizing that each of us is paying attention to different things, that our views are based on different information.

A collaborative We‘re in this together. A genuine I seek to understand not judge. A sharing of facts and information These form the foundation of having good conversations about difficult topics…potential quicksand!

Conversation 1

An acquaintance, Mark is setting up a carpentry business in country Victoria working in Melbourne. He’s making the tree change. We discussed him doing some work at my house and he went away to work out a quote. The quote came back with a daily rate far in excess of what I had been paying locally. I checked in with another Carpentry company to confirm that my much lower pricing expectations were standard for this area and type of work.  I gave Mark the feedback.. “Let’s talk. This is the local price structure.”

Mark came over that day, slightly nervous and apologetic. We had a lovely conversation and I could tell him about how things work in the country – the network effect, absentee homeowners, airbnb owners,  the “locals” etc. He was clearly still feeling uncomfortable and I found myself saying…..

” Mark this is just a money conversation. It’s about numbers, facts and solving a problem together. It has nothing to do with friendship, emotions, judgement. I’m not upset at all. It’s just a meeting point that makes sense for both of us.”

This was the switching point in the conversation. He relaxed. We worked through the numbers and reached an agreement we both felt comfortable with. The work starts next week.

Conversation 2

I was talking with a friend, Karen about differences in parenting techniques since the 1980’s when we bought up our kids. She was questioning why, when her grandson has a tantrum or is naughty he’s not sent to the naughty corner for time out. We both reminisced about the “good old days” when kids ate their broccoli and sat at a table for meals and were told not to interrupt when the adults were speaking! We laughed but also there was a tinge of serious confusion about this new world of parenting.

“If its important you need to say something” I suggested to Karen

” No way..it’s quicksand to criticise my daughter’s parenting skills. She just blows up and we both get angry and the talking ends there.”

I remembered the book I used to use in preparing for mediations in my work as a change consultant. I dug out the Douglas Stone book  (Difficult Conversations: How to talk about what matters most) and Karen walked away with some reading to do. She was on a mission. Conversations about parenting had to be easier than this!

A week later we caught up for a coffee again.  ” How did it go?”

” Great book” she said. ” I love what he says about ” our views are based on different information.” ” I realised that it was time tolearn parenting 2021 and let go of some of my old ideas. You know these kids really do their homework! There are so many podcasts, books and online support for parents now. I’m listening to a podcast by Janet Lansbury on Respectful parenting. It’s great. It talks about parents understanding their power and leadership and using it respectfully with their kids. It’s a really different take on how to parent but it makes sense.”

So there were no explosions this time? I said

” No it was great. I mean I’ll still do some of the things I think are really important as a granny. But my daughter and I agreed on a list of consistent things we would do with the kids like sitting down at a table to eat, no dummies during the day and no more than an hour of screen time a day. you should have a listen to the podcast. It’s great”

We all engage in potentially volatile conversations. The Quicksand of life. These conversations can be particularly difficult when there is a close emotional relationship and vulnerabilities. So how do we navigate such territory?

Check in with your emotions

If you’re angry, grumpy or feeling vulnerable take time out before having a quicksand conversation. If you start a conversation and its spiralling into quicksand territory bale out by agreement. Say things like ” It matters to me that we can work together on this but I feel we should put it aside for now. It’s difficult stuff and we need to be in a really good space to talk about it. Can we come back to this one together at another time? “

Talking from my ego/ fears/ anxiety often lands me in trouble. I need to manage these emotions myself before I can enter an arena of potentially difficult conversations.

Seek to Understand

It’s a problem/idea explored not a judgement about the other person.

At all times choose words carefully. Respect different perspectives. SEEK TO UNDERSTAND is the most useful and sometimes hardest tool you have. Listen deeply, trust motives, expect respect, give respect. Try to deeply understand what the other person is telling you. And the hardest part of seeking to understand is listening for what is NOT being said. what’s happening for this person at this time? What shape are they in? Is this the time to raise potentially difficult conversations?

What do they need?

  • facts and information?
  • validation?
  • learning/ coaching?
  •  practical help?
  •  nothing at this time?

Chunking Correctly

That’s right. Timing is everything! If there’s a lot to talk about or things have built up over time and you need to have what I call a  “Clearing House conversation,” don’t try to talk through too much at once. Break up the conversation into 15-30 minute bites. then come back to it at another time.

Create Common Ground

Even in the most difficult conversations there is always common ground. Find it and agree it and this becomes a solid foundation for the conversation.

In the case with Mark in the first conversation, the common ground is – he wants the work, I want him to work at my house and we just need to find the price-point that we can both be comfortable with.

In the grandparenting conversation we all want what’s best for the grandchildren and can we agree the things where we will all be consistent and on the same page and the areas where it doesn’t matter if we behave differently with the children.

We never stop learning. Mastery of our people skills is an art form.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Words by Nora Vitins. Feature image with thanks Andrea Piacquadio

17 April 2021 | Living Well

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