Thursday, June 14, 2012

Preparing for a difficult conversation

People often look for advice at the wrong time.  When faced with having a difficult conversation, they are ready to hear advice on how to have a difficult conversation. A better time for the advice would be before the difficult conversation became necessary. Because the best first step in having a difficult conversation is to have lots of interesting, productive, great conversations.

It may be harder than it used to be to have good quality conversations, or it may just be that we have different excuses than our parents did for not having good conversations.  Either way, great conversations take time and attention and curiosity and a willingness to engage with a different point of view.  With the possible exception of mild curiosity, all of these are usually absent from social media "conversations." There's a difference between shouting your opinions to the world, lurking and listening, and participating in dynamic, engaging conversation.

Conversation is one of my favourite things in life. I really, really love to sit with someone and clear the space to be curious and positive about what they will say and what I will say. One of the great things about conversation is that we learn about ourselves by engaging with others. We hear ourselves say things we didn't know we knew or making connections we have never made before. Under the influence of conversation, great ideas happen.

If I have had at least one great conversation, I consider a day well spent. If a day passes without at least a short, deep, engaging conversation, then I am sad and frustrated. It's that simple for me: conversation is not the air I breathe, but it is the nutrient that keeps me sane and energized and hopeful.

If you feel the way I do about conversation, then difficult conversations represent opportunities.  To be sure, they are difficult opportunities, the kind you wish sometimes you had the sense to avoid. (Oops. I meant that I sometimes wish I had the sense to avoid them - maybe you feel differently.) They represent an opportunity like a personal best in sports or a mountain to a climber, or the Arctic to an explorer. They require full-out effort and skill and luck helps. But they offer  terrific rewards. When you make it through a difficult conversation, you will have stretched and learned and demonstrated your commitment to whatever it is that motivated the conversation.

So, if you want to be able to look forward to difficult conversations as potentially rewarding challenges, begin by looking forward to easier conversations. Talk to people - sometimes strangers, but often friends and acquaintances. Clear space so that quality conversations can happen, and also be open to quantity conversations - the sharing of nonsense and trivia and daily routine that allow us to open connections through which conversations might become possible.


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