- The difference between healthy vs. unhealthy disagreement
- Developing a healthy disagreement process
- Ways to make a difficult conversation more fruitful and effective
Surviving Hard Feelings
Difficult conversations can fill us with hellish dread.
I’m no stranger to this feeling; just because I specialize in conflict and communication doesn’t mean I enjoy a tough discussion. Those moments sill bring up hard emotions of being overwhelmed, angry, or grieved. They can still make my heart race.
In this article, I’m going to share with you some tips for surviving in a difficult conversation and teach you one little word that can help you navigate brave talks.
A Difficult Conversation (often) = Disagreement
Most often, difficult conversations need to happen because two people or groups are having a strong disagreement: they don’t agree on how to do a certain thing, believe a certain way, or act a certain way.
What has helped me in the work of conflict transformation is this important principle: disagreement is good. It’s good because it makes our ideas, relationships, and communities stronger. When we are willing to disagree with each other and not run for the hills, we make space for each other and we make space for building trust, even though we might hate each other’s ideas.
Here in the US, we have disagreement hard-baked into our democratic system; the right to speak freely, the right to protest, the right to uncensored press, the right to choose our religion and political affiliations. Those who created our country knew the importance of disagreement and the dangers of snuffing it out.
Disagreement makes us better. It helps us sharpen each other. We need to see an issue from many sides, many perspectives, to understand it fully. Taking the time to explore the nuance of what the “other side” thinks is a really valuable process.
So, if you are about to walk into a difficult conversation, know that you are doing a good thing by engaging disagreement. It’s not wrong to disagree. It’s wrong to let disagreement fracture a relationship that would otherwise be caring and supportive without the presence of that disagreement.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Disagreement
While disagreement, in general, is good for relationships, not all disagreement is created equal. Sometimes, a disagreement arises from abuses of power, or fear that has run rampant.
Other times, the disagreement itself might be healthy but the ways we choose to handle it become unhealthy. What does unhealthy disagreement look like? It looks like personal attacks and name-calling, violent speech or acts, spite, bitterness, revenge, control, hopelessness, manipulation, and malice. These are things that strangle our communities.
Giving in to them cuts us off from really seeing each other.
It can be extremely hard not to go to this negative place, especially when we have strong feelings about the issues at stake in the disagreement. Our strong feelings might be very real and legitimate, but we don’t have to let them rule us.
A helpful way to keep our emotions in check is to have a process mapped out before we walk into the conversation. A process can help us stay on track and keep us moving toward our goals. It might seem basic, but when the conversation or our hard feelings start getting the better of us, we can return to our process like a lighted path.
Disagreeing in healthy ways is more than just talking at someone. It involves a process that helps the conversation becomes more effective.
My process — the word I want to share with you — is “quest.” When I have a difficult conversation, I’m not walking in screaming at my enemy. I’m also not giving all the answers as if speaking to a child. Instead, I’m inviting my conversation parter — my peer — into a deeper and more solid relationship that can handle the weight of conflict and not break. I’m trying to heal the causes of the conflict that are below the surface. Ultimately, my approach is inviting them to go on a quest with me; together, we are searching for a place of strength and cooperation. Even though we might not agree, we are trying to see each other. The QUEST process helps me do that.
“QUEST” stands for: Question, Understand, Explain, Sift, Tweak.
Thinking of the conversation as a spiral, where the center is growth and a deeper relationship, QUEST conversations help us move inward, toward each other and toward making disagreement productive:
- QUESTION honestly. Ask your conversation partner open, curious, honest questions about their reality and how they see things. Don’t use the questions as a way to lead them to your opinions. This isn’t a courtroom or an interrogation. Actually ask in ways that don’t anticipate an answer. You might be surprised by what you learn.
- UNDERSTAND deeply. Hold the things your conversation partner says. You don’t have to believe what they give you or accept it as true, but do try to understand where they are coming from.
- EXPLAIN effectively. Offer your truths and experiences, in the full strength of your conviction and to the best of your ability. Offer in a way that is bridge-building and constructive, not shaming, attacking, or expecting conformity.
- SIFT gently. Sift through everything you hear and decide what you think is valid or not valid, true and not true, good and not good. Figure out where the true points of disagreement lie. Do this in a way that holds an open hand to the fact that you don’t know everything. Be gentle with yourself and your conversation partner.
- TWEAK accordingly. As you gain new information and understanding of nuance, and especially if you realize there is a better way to look at things, you are allowed to adjust your questions and opinions. This is the mark of a strong thinker.
- (Repeat) Let the conversation continue through these steps, again and again. Don’t pressure yourself or your conversation partner to find a resolution. If resolution comes naturally, it will arise on its own. Focus instead on seeing and being seen, on building trust and a spirit of cooperation.
In a QUEST conversation, I may never, ever agree with my conversation partner; and it’s important to remember I can’t control them or force agreement. The ultimate goal is not “solving” disagreement, but building a resilient relationship that includes healthy disagreement. If we come out of the conversation with a better understanding and respect for each other, it will be a successful conversation.
What Comes Next
Once we reach a place of greater understanding and respect through a QUEST conversation, even though the disagreement may still linger, something important happens. We make space to collaborate and be creative together. Creativity is central in figuring out how to live with our differences in a way that feels fair and freeing to everyone involved. It means finding new ways to share power so that everyone can have a say; so that everyone can know they matter and are valued.
We might not find a resolution to the conflict in a traditional sense, and we might not have a storybook ending to our difficult conversation, but we will give ourselves important opportunities to generate ideas, create better patterns of relating, and shape more sustainable realities. We might even find ways to transform the source of the conflict itself.
Excerpt from my book, Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict, Broadleaf Books, July 2020.