Awkward confrontations are the worst. I hate when I get thrust into a situation where I have to deal with confrontation. I think things like, “I didn’t ask for this!” Or, “You’re the one who did something inappropriate and now I have to figure out how to confront you over it! That’s not fair!” Even if you’re just trying to be helpful, it can be tough. I’m a middle school counselor. When was the last time you had to instruct someone on the fine art of applying deodorant? And then there’s that guy who doesn’t hate confrontation. We all know why no one wants to have a confrontation with him.
There are all kinds of scenarios that might lead to a difficult conversation. It could be Uncle Jim who just wants to talk politics at Thanksgiving. Today’s political and civic environment is a landmine of potential disagreements. It could be the fact that someone at work or home is being inappropriate and the task falls to you to intervene. It could be talking with your teenager about how to be safe on social media. Maybe you have a loved one with an addiction, and they need a loving conversation. Or maybe they need a tough love conversation. Are there universal principles that can lead to success in difficult conversations? I believe that there are.
Bill Hybels, in his book “Axiom,” has written a chapter called “The Tunnel of Chaos.” In short, the tunnel of chaos is the passageway moving from some kind of conflict toward what Hybels describes as community. We can understand community in this sense as “understanding” or “a shared feeling of value and respect.” Essentially, part of a relationship that is broken being healed or restored. The tunnel of chaos is the difficult conversation. The difference between relationships that go into the tunnel of chaos and those that don’t is value, or dare I say love. If I stand in conflict with someone who I don’t value, why should I feel the compulsion to enter the tunnel of chaos with them? On the other hand, if I do value the relationship, or the context of the relationship; then I am willing to do the hard work of making our way through the tunnel so we can get right. The first thing that you should consider when facing a difficult conversation is, “is this person or situation worth doing this hard work?” If the answer is yes, and it most often will be, then let’s move forward.
I believe that most conflicts occur because someone does not feel heard, valued or understood. Let’s define what we mean by those words. When someone feels heard, they feel confident that another human being has paid them the respect of listening well to them. This leads to someone feeling valued. When someone feels valued, they are confident that another human being accepts them as worthwhile and significant. Finally, this leads to understanding. When someone feels understood, they are confident that another human being has listened, cares and can articulate their view back to them. In my experience, even if two people who are at odds never agree, once both sides feel heard, valued and understood, the conflict is over. So what are practical ways to accomplish this?
In order to make someone feel heard, you must listen well. Put down your phone. No multitasking. Make eye contact and be responsive. Ask simple questions. Everyone loves to be listened to. We all need someone who will hear us when we have something to say.
In order to make someone feel valued, you must accept their view as important. They may believe that the world is flat. The principle here is not that what they are saying is true or that you agree, it’s that this human being is important, and therefore their thoughts are too.
In order to make someone feel understood, you must be able to repeat their view back to them in some meaningful way. Say something like, “So what I hear you saying is…” There is power in making someone feel like you care enough to process their thoughts. It builds trust, and when trust is built something amazing happens. The person you are communicating with begins to want to hear, value and understand you.
If the relationship (your uncle at Thanksgiving) or the context of the relationship (your workplace) matters, you must care enough to be brave, be clear, be honest and be authentic. Think before you speak. Never speak in anger. Decide if the issue is of such importance that you would rather be right or be happy. Would you rather be right on the issue or right with the person? Always value the human being you’re in the tunnel of chaos with. After you do the hard work of hearing, valuing and understanding, you will emerge from the tunnel into the clear light of understanding and healing. Sometimes that’s just the first step in resolving an issue, but no one ever took a second step without taking the first.
Dr. David Walker is a local school counselor and graduate student in the master’s in social work program at Idaho State University. He lives in Pocatello with his wife and three children.