Engaging in Difficult Conversations

A How-To Guide Using the Three P's

· Family,Conversation,How-to,Therapy,Engage

As Published in The Catholic Moment by Mike O'Connell


Have you ever heard the expression, “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company”? While this may be safe advice, I wonder if it is the best advice. I’m sure many of us have experienced showing up to Thanksgiving and finding yourself either thrown into, or hiding from, an intense debate among family members. In these situations, the obvious response is to avoid it all together or, be prepared to jump in the next time ready for the fight.

For me, I love a good debate. I’m the type of person that wants to share new ideas and challenge expected answers. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, I’ve discovered that what I thought was an uplifting spirited debate left the other person enraged, or crushed, not willing to enter into another conversation. I missed an opportunity to listen and see the other person, and accidentally exerted my opinion and myself. This is where tension and hurt begins. When we forget the other person, or when the other person forgets me, we fall into a trap of only wanting to be heard, and not be connected.

In 1 Peter 3:15-16 we read that we are to be open to conversation, and ready to “give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” As Christians, we should not be afraid to enter into difficult conversations and to encourage others. To challenge thought with the light and hope of the Gospel. Yet, it can be so difficult when we feel unheard, or unseen, especially with people we love.

Friends, we can’t tap out. If we turn on any media outlet, we constantly hear how “divided” we are. Maybe it is politics within your family that gets the blood pressure up. Maybe it is religion. Maybe it is a misunderstanding between generations, or the inability to seek forgiveness from past hurts. Maybe I feel judged, or maybe I feel the need to instruct someone on what they are not doing well. Whatever that thing may be - don’t tap out. If we all simply go to our corners because we don’t know how to continue having the conversation, or are so wounded from past experiences that we hide from the conversation, then we give into the forces that are more interested in keeping us a part than learning from one another, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us. 1 Peter continues: “Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you (5:7).” This does not mean every conversation needs to be picked up. But every person has the dignity to be heard and to be seen. And instead of being stuck, can we be brave to become unstuck and listen in a new way?

One of the biggest reasons for breakdown in trust is predictability. In relationships, we learn and become accustomed to the back and forth pattern of a relationship. We learn the pattern we have with that person. In order to feel safe with someone, the other person must be predictable over 85% of the time. This is equally empowering, and discouraging. If every time you see Uncle Joe, he immediately jumps into a blame laden rant about your cousin, then he will most likely do it again! On one hand, it is empowering that you have this info, and you know exactly how uncle Joe is going to greet you. On the other hand, it is discouraging, and you may have the thought “ugh… not again.” So, let’s change the pattern. Uncle Joe may respond the same way, but that does not mean that I have to. To build a new pattern of predictability, try out the three ‘P’s’.

Prepare - Since Uncle Joe has been so predictable, you probably know exactly what is going to happen. Alternatively, if you are the Uncle Joe type, you may know exactly how people suddenly turn away from you or stop listening. It is important to take a moment, prepare ourselves, and attune to the other person. What do you know? How can you reflect Christ’s love to them right now? Take a moment to turn off the expectations of what will happen in this conversation, but instead be prepared to be present to the other person.

Puzzle - Try not to end sentences with periods. Periods become quick lines in the sand in conversation and can lead to misunderstanding. Instead, try to be curious. The more question marks you can use, the more you invite that person to be heard and understood. Instead of presenting as defensive or aggressive, you can be curious and interested with questions. You might try, “I don’t understand what you mean, can you explain more?” “I head you say… did I hear you correctly?” “Do you really feel that way?” The other beauty of questions is it can raise empathy for you. Instead of walking away from a conversation confused or hurt, you can walk away with answers and understanding.

Praise - It is vulnerable and courageous to share with one another! Even if you don’t agree with the other person, if we simply walk away angry, it’s that much harder to come back to the conversation. Don’t be afraid to give the other person a little praise. “It is so good to see you!” “I appreciate this opportunity to talk, thanks for sharing with me.” “I know we don’t see eye to eye on this, but thank you for listening. I need to step away.” Relationships are not only a short term experience, they are a journey. When we are hurt or confused, we can only see that which causes the confusion. It is important to remember that the other person may also be hurt or confused, too. To embrace the journey with that person helps us to put that moment in context. Instead of shutting down, allow an opportunity for grace.

There may be difficult conversations to be had this holiday season. As Christians, let us not tap out, but let us love in a renewed way. Let us create new patterns and new opportunities to work through difficult experiences. As 1 Peter tells us “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins (4:8).”