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Understanding What Makes Conversations Difficult

December 2nd, 2010

Paul Godin, LL.B., C.Med

As mediators, the first step to helping people engage more productively in their challenging conversations is to understand what makes them challenging in the first place. Once we understand the cause, we can develop a communication plan in the mediation to maximize the likelihood of productive discussion. In their book, Difficult Conversations, Stone et al. suggest that difficult conversations have their roots in three sources- the What Happened conversation, the Feelings Conversation, and the Identity Conversation. The What Happened conversation creates tension because people disagree on factual issues. Their stories differ, or appear to differ. The Feelings conversation involves tensions caused by strong emotions. Many people are uncomfortable dealing with strong emotions, either their own emotions, those of others, or both. The Identity conversation involves difficulties arising when people have their pride and sense of self challenged (like in a performance review). Most people get upset and/or defensive when their sense of self is challenged, directly or indirectly. When these tensions erupt, conversations are far more challenging for all concerned.

My surveys of students over the years have identified three other general challenges in conversations- Past History, Conflicting Goals, and Challenging Communication Processes. When people have a Negative Past History (personally or organizationally), it creates a negative filter through which any current conversation is seen, and that makes productive conversation much harder. When people perceive the other party to have Conflicting goals or to be a barrier to achieving their goals, the competitive element of conversations is ratcheted up significantly, and the other side may be seen (and treated) as the enemy. Finally, if there are Communication Process Challenges, productive conversation can be very hard to achieve even with good intentions. Put a conversation in front of an audience, for example, and it is not the same conversation anymore. A rushed conversation is rarely as effective as a planned one.

As mediators, if we can identify or anticipate challenges like these, we can plan our mediation process to minimize their negative impact. If negative history is an issue for example, it may help to explore why people did things that upset the other side. Explanations can often start healing even old wounds. If strong emotions are a concern, it may be possible to manage them by allowing them to be aired in caucus, where no damage will be done to the parties’ relationship.

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