A few weeks ago, my husband and I attended a family social gathering seeing extended family we had not seen in quite a long time. As one typically does, I went around to say “hello” to everyone, usually greeting them with a smile and a hug. However, when I went over to say hello to two relatives, I was met with a very cold “hello,” essentially being ignored. During the rest of the evening, these relatives ignored us completely, and even though seated at the same table, pretended we were not even present.

As we had not seen these relatives in many years, we have no idea how or when we offended them. (I am assuming that we offended them in some way as opposed to just a general disliking on general principles.)

This situation reminded me of a book that I had just finished re-reading:  Difficult Conversations [How To Discuss What Matters Most] by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Second edition, Penguin Books, New York, 2010).

By “difficult conversation,” the authors refer to all those conversations we dread having or find difficult to bring up and discuss. They are those conversations that bring on awkwardness, dread or discomfort or ones in which we feel vulnerable or bring up issues relating to our self-esteem. (Id. at xxvii). It is the “conversation” that I would like to have had with these relatives, given the right time and place. Obviously, a family social gathering is neither the time nor place to discover the underlying cause of their unfriendliness.

In any “difficult conversation,” we are having three conversations. The first is the “what happened” conversation in which, as the name implies, we try to figure out who is “right” and who is “wrong” and where the blame should be placed. Why did the mistake happen and who is at fault? (Id. at 7.)

The second is the “feelings” conversation which, again, as the name implies, our feelings come into play. Are our feelings valid? Appropriate? Am I the crazy one or is the other person crazy? Should I feel angry? Hurt? Frustrated et cetera. (Id. at 7-8.)

The third is the “identity” conversation which is the one we have with the little person inside our head about our self-image, competency, being good vs bad, our self-esteem, our future or our well-being. (Id. at 8.)

So- if I were to have this conversation with these relatives, how do I successfully navigate these three conversations and thus the “difficult conversation”? The key is active listening, looking at the situation as would an outsider and looking for positive ways to move forward.

In the first conversation, the “what happened” conversation, rather than try to figure out what act of omission or commission was done by whom and to whom and thus who is to blame, I should ask questions and be curious. Rather than assume that I know what these relatives are thinking or why they were so unfriendly (which, in truth, I have no clue!), I should ask questions in a non-judgmental way. I must recognize that everyone sees the world differently, and that there often is no “right” or “wrong” way or one way to do something. I need to be curious and actively listen to what these relatives have to say about “what happened.” In turn, I should express how I “contributed” to the situation, what I was thinking and why I did what I did or did not do. In sum, I should look at the situation as would a third person observing what each of us contributed to the situation. (Id. at 25-82.)

The second conversation, the “feelings” conversation, is a bit more difficult. In listening to them speak, I should listen for the emotions that these relatives are expressing and acknowledge those feelings. Again, active listening and empathy are key. I should discuss my feelings and theirs; Give a label to the feeling we are both feeling and hearing them express. If I hear “frustration” in their voices, acknowledge it: “you are frustrated! Tell me more about it….” Only after I acknowledge both our feelings and theirs, can the conversation move forward towards a resolution. (Id. at 86-108.)

The third conversation, the “identity” conversation, is the one we have with ourselves: It is our inner person asking us whether we are competent, whether we are a good person or whether we are worthy of love. (Id. at 111-113.) The authors suggest that we recognize and accept the obvious; we are not perfect, we will make mistakes, and we all need to learn to “live with it.” (Id. at 119-122.)

Another conversation I should have with myself is to ask whether the issue is even worth bringing up, or should I let it go. (Id. at 132-146.) What is the purpose of raising the issue and what do I hope to accomplish by doing so? I may just be better to let it slide. (Id. at 131-146.) As we had not seen these relatives in many years, and chances are good, it will be a long while before we see them again, should I simply let it go and move on?

If I do decide to go forward with this hypothetical conversation, and have the “three conversations, it then becomes time to problem solve or brainstorm options to resolve the matter; how to move forward so that the situation does not happen again. In doing this, the authors again suggest active listening, reframing, paraphrasing, acknowledging, being curious and not judgmental. (Id. at 147-234.)

In sum, this book provides a good road map for me to have this hypothetical conversation if I decide it is worth it to do so. That is the key question!

…. Just something to think about.



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