Although many people have had business communications training, some still approach difficult conversations with a degree of fear and trepidation.
In fact, ever since Donald Trump won the presidency, I have had a number of people call and email seeking advice and asking for suggestions about how to talk about politics. Many of these folks have done damage to their current relationships in the way that they have broached sensitive topics.
One person revealed that she had made several enemies out of some of her lifelong friends. One company recently reached out and asked for assistance in helping its leaders to talk about the current issues that are facing our country.
Whether it be politics or any potentially sensitive issue, there a number of elements to consider before you begin to talk about any potentially divisive topic. Here are a number of suggestions that you would do well to think through prior to that discussion.
Identify your intent. Before you even begin to hold a conversation, you might ask yourself, “Why do I want to talk about this issue with this person?” “Do I need to be right and make a point?” “Am I really interested in understanding another’s point of view?”
If you are sincerely interested in learning and understanding another’s perspective, then the pureness of your motive should help you hold a respectful conversation. If, however, your motive is not so pure, then perhaps you should avoid the interaction. You need to weigh the consequences of making a point and its potential effects on the relationship.
Prepare the data. If you will be talking about an issue that needs evidence or validation, you will need to secure supporting facts and information before holding the conversation. Conversations that descend into a war of personal opinions and accusations do not begin or end well. If you are going to share an opinion, then you need to have the data from which your opinion is derived. If you can’t find the supporting facts, then you are better off not to hold the conversation.
Express your purpose. In beginning a sensitive conversation, it is helpful to express your intentions up front, and then ask the person if they are willing to engage in a dialogue about the topic. If they turn down your request, then accept their refusal graciously and trust their judgment that perhaps this is a conversation that is better left alone.
Check your emotions. If the other person becomes heated or irritated, the last thing you want to do is to match or meet their emotional intensity. When a conversation turns emotional, our emotions usually serve to hijack our rationality, and we often end up doing or saying things that we will later regret. Maintain your emotions and your rationality by objectively monitoring your feelings, words, and actions. If you can’t keep your cool, then you are better off excusing yourself from the conversation.
Be curious. Everyone has unique experiences and perspectives. Let your curiosity about the topic drive the conversation. This implies that you will ask questions to understand another’s perspective and that you will listen to their responses. Be sure to paraphrase or clarify anything that you do not understand. This serves as a demonstration of your care and concern for them and their ideas.
Also, be sure that you begin by allowing the other person to express their views first. If you give your full attention to them, then they are more likely to give you their full attention when it is your turn.
Take time. Many times these types of conversations take longer than you think they might. You need to determine if you have the time to engage in such a conversation. You don’t want to rush or shortchange the sharing of differing opinions and the supporting evidence. Before engaging in such a conversation, assess if you have the time or are willing to take the time to hear someone else’s opinion before you share your own.
Meet with the individual. If this is the type of dialogue where a person might be offended by the presence of other people, then you need to meet one-on-one with that person. No one wants to look foolish or uninformed. Consider the topic, the intent for holding the conversation and how the other person might respond before determining the best way to connect with the person. Don’t worry about being too careful. People will respect your willingness to consider them and their feelings.
Validate perspective. Once a person has finished speaking, acknowledge or validate the importance of their perspective. Then feel free to say that you have a different perspective that you would like to share. Seeking first to understand the other person will create an opening to share your perspective as you seek to be understood.
Don’t assume anything. Often when we share our point of view, we assume that the other person has understood. It’s important to ask them, “What do you think?” if you want them to confirm or disconfirm your perspective. Just remember, if you don’t ask, you may never know. It is in the asking that you will discover their view of your outlook.
Watch your language. Sometimes the words we use in talking about controversial issues can create a fair amount of emotional response. Watch for the reactions of the person you are speaking to. Their nonverbal behavior will serve as a reflection of how they are receiving your message. If they start demonstrating some behaviors such as eye-rolling, defensive hand gestures, or sarcastic tones, check out the meaning behind those behaviors by asking what they mean.
Apologize when necessary. Often offense is taken where none is intended. If you sense that the other person has taken offense at something you have said or done, be quick to apologize. Always take personal responsibility for your actions by saying something like, “I am sorry if I said something that offended you. Did I?” Notice the apology ends in a question to confirm if your assumptions are correct.
Thank the person. If people are willing to share their personal views with you, thank them for their willingness to engage. If you are respectful in the way you speak and share your views with them, they are more likely to consider what you have to say rather than to dismiss your views offhand because that is not the way they think.
Talking about any sensitive issue is not easy because people’s views seem to be more and more polarizing. Before you begin to engage in this type of conversation, you need to consider the cost of doing so. Often people are not really interested in understanding another’s view. They are only interested in being right or justifying their perspective on an issue.
If you find this to be the case, you are probably better off respectfully maintaining the relationship than believing that sharing your viewpoint will be respectfully considered.
John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. He has been in organizational development work for over 20 years helping leaders and individual contributors to learn the skills to assist them in achieving superior results. He has experience in the fields of leadership, change management, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked with such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connection with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
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