How did we get here? 3 Steps to Improve Difficult Conversations

“You are so inconsiderate. Youre always looking at your phone when I talk to you.
“Oh, come on, you’re exaggerating.”
“No I’m not. I feel like you don’t care.”
“You’re overreacting!”
“Why are we even together?”

Lets face it, no matter what I do, youre never satisfied.

Do you recognize yourself in this conversation? You are not alone. The couple behind you in the grocery line probably had a similar exchange this morning. How do our conversations get so out of hand in six short sentences?

People argue when they perceive that their personality is under attack, or the facts of their actual behavior are misrepresented. The couple may have had a more positive outcome to the conversation by using the following three guidelines:

  1. Use “I” language instead of “you” language. An “I” statement expresses your experience of the situation instead of your perception of the other party’s character or motives. People are much more likely to listen to you if you are not talking about who they are, what they are feeling, and the motives behind their behavior. Think about the last time someone said, “you don’t care” or “you’re so inconsiderate.” There’s a good chance you felt defensive, and less interested in listening to what they had to say.
  1. Refrain from using absolute words such as “never” and “always.” Absolute terms are destructive because they are rarely accurate. As a result, your credibility as the speaker is undermined, and the listener is boxed into disputing an untrue statement.
  1. State your concern in one sentence by filling in the blanks of the following sentence:

    I feel __X__ when you do __Y__.

“I feel X”: The “X” blank requires that you identify what you feel instead of making inferences about the other person.

The Y blank: The Y part of the statement is a clearly defined behavior that is observable to any bystander. All of us are more likely to be receptive and understanding when others refer to our behavior, instead of our personality or motivation.

This exercise may look simple and obvious, but it can actually be very challenging. We are rarely taught to correctly identify our feelings, much less define what is bothering us in behavioral terms. Practicing this technique can save much time and anguish when discussing difficult topics with people in all domains of our life.

The conversation above may have ended differently if the speaker had said, “I feel hurt when you look at your phone while we are talking.” If both parties had limited the discussion to their own experience of the other person’s behavior, they could have avoided hurting each other with unfounded judgments and moved forward to resolve the issue.

It’s not easy to keep our cool, and know how the behavior of others affects us. Our best chance of resolving relationship issues is to respect the emotional boundaries of the other person. Talking about our emotions instead of presuming we know the other person’s experience not only conveys respect, but allows them to know and understand us at a deeper level. In turn, they are more likely to let us know them if they feel safe from attack.

The next time you want to share a concern, remember to keep it brief, only talk about you, and never say “never.”