When Conversations Go Downhill, Try This

When Conversations Go Downhill, Try This

Have you ever been in a conversation that took a wrong turn?

Some friends of mine (let’s call them Beth and Alex) found themselves in this situation recently, and it seemed to come out of nowhere for both of them. Alex was at the kitchen table, preparing to make a major online purchase he had been talking about for weeks. Before he clicked the purchase button though, Beth asked him if they could look at the budget one more time to make sure they had the cash.

Things went downhill from there.

There wasn’t an immediate explosion, but Beth could tell Alex was really bothered. His face tightened up, he stopped engaging in the conversation, and finally, he mumbled something like, “Fine! If you don’t want me to get it, I won’t get it!” and left the room.

What just happened? Beth’s request to check the budget before a major purchase seemed reasonable. The response she received seemed out of proportion. What went wrong?

Alex and Beth had inadvertently stepped into a “crucial conversation.” These are conversations where emotions run strong, opinions vary, and the stakes are often high.

What’s really going on

When discussion breaks down, it’s typically for one of two reasons – someone in the conversation feels either threatened or neglected.

  • Perceived threat: the others in this conversation are attacking me or my needs – being critical, judgmental, demanding, or blaming
  • Perceived neglect: the others in this conversation are ignoring me or my needs – being selfish, uncaring, uncommitted, or unsympathetic

Whether the perception is threat or neglect, the discussion no longer feels safe. It doesn’t matter if the others in the conversation don’t intend to threaten or be neglectful; if the perception is there, there’s a high probability that communication will break down.

The first step in restoring dialogue is noticing when things take a turn in the first place. When someone in the conversation feels threatened or neglected, most people react with either silence or violence. Violence is usually easy to spot; the other person becomes more aggressive in the conversation, the volume level goes up, and they go on the attack with their words. Silence can sometimes be harder to detect, because one person disengages from the discussion, and depending on the situation, the other may not even notice.

How to start turning things around

When you realize that the discussion has broken down, your instincts may be to either ignore it and hope the other person comes around, or water down the content of the conversation in an attempt to back-pedal.

Neither of these solutions are particularly helpful. If things have deteriorated because one party doesn’t perceive the conversation is safe anymore, the most important thing you need to do is to bring safety back. You cannot have profitable dialogue until safety is restored.

In their book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, four communication experts lay out their ideas for restoring safety to a conversation and bringing everyone back into dialogue:

  1. Step out of the content. Rather than plowing on with what by now has become an argument, the best communicators actually take a step back and leave the content of the discussion altogether. If your topic has caused emotions to run high, it’s very difficult to reestablish safety again without taking at least a little detour.
  2. Establish mutual purpose. After stepping out of the content, restate the goals that you both share in having this conversation in the first place. Many conversations get bogged down in the details of “what” while losing track of a mutual “why.” Bringing back the mutual “why” is important to communicate to the other person that you care about their interests and values.
  3. Establish mutual respect. When someone senses threat or neglect, they often feel disrespected. From this point on, the debate becomes about defending oneself, and winning the argument can feel like the only means to achieve this. By stepping out of the content and stating your respect for the other person, you make it safe for them to engage in the conversation. If they felt neglect, you have reestablished care; if they felt threatened, you have reestablished your regard.
  4. Once safety is restored, reenter the dialogue. If mutual respect and purpose have been agreed on, the conversation should be safe again for all parties to get back to the core of the dialogue. It could take some time to establish safety. If the relationships of those involved are not good or the perceived threat or neglect is particularly strong, you may need to spend time rebuilding purpose and respect. To achieve progress in the conversation, you must not reenter the content of the original conversation until safety is restored.

Beth approached Alex and asked if they could talk. “It seems like my budgeting comments earlier really bothered you,” she began.

“Yes,” he replied, and she could tell from his volume level and intensity that the emotion from before was still just below the surface. “I can tell you don’t want me to buy this. As soon as we start looking at the budget, there will be all this other stuff that takes priority! I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Step out of the content. “Yes, I could tell that what I said frustrated you. I certainly didn’t want to do that,” said Beth.

Establish mutual purpose. “I know how important this is to you, because it’s an outlet for you to relieve stress. I know how important it is for each of us to have positive ways to do that.”

“Exactly. And I’ve been talking about this for months, so you know I’ve been planning on it! And now all of a sudden you’re so interested in budgeting!”

Beth knew it wasn’t time to reenter the actual content. “I’m sorry my budget comments caught you off guard. I wasn’t expecting this conversation to come up right now either.”

Establish mutual respect. “I’m sorry if I hadn’t listened closely enough before about when you wanted to buy this. I love you, and I trust you. I know how much you care about our family’s finances too.”

Alex seemed to relax. “Thanks. I do care, and I was pretty sure my recent bonus would provide more than enough for it. But I guess we hadn’t really talked about it. I know you’re only trying to make sure we keep to our budgeting commitment.”

Safety restored, reenter the content. Beth responded, sensing Alex felt safe again. “I think you’re probably right, but it would really help me if I saw everything on paper. Do you think we could take a quick look at the numbers now?”

Beth and Alex restored safety and resolved their argument. Hopefully this experience will help them both approach future conversations with more understanding on both sides as they establish more trust in their relationship and get more practice in keeping crucial conversations on the right track.

I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations if you often find yourself in high stakes or highly emotional conversations. Very often a third party can also be helpful, since they usually notice threat/neglect before those involved. Though we are not marriage counselors, the Sound Stewardship team would be happy to help if the discussions involve finances.

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