by Pastor Tim Oslovich
Have you ever had to have a high stakes, high emotion conversation with someone when your opinion differed from theirs? How did it go? Most of us have these conversations fairly often. We need to tell a coworker that they art not pulling their weight. We need to tell a family member that their behavior is hurtful. It’s hard to have these conversations go well because we often don’t do our best when we are upset.
I spent a few days learning how to do better at having these “crucial conversations.” Much of what I learned might be considered “common sense,” but have you ever noticed that “common sense” really isn’t that common? Many times we – or others – might have a sense of the right thing to do, but we don’t do it because we are angry or afraid or just don’t know how. Learning some practices and skills can help.
For example, one thing that all of us do is tell ourselves stories to interpret the facts that we encounter. It’s very difficult for almost everyone to separate facts from stories. Facts are things that we see, hear, smell, or touch. Stories help us make sense of the facts. Your coworker, Bob, walks by your desk, doesn’t look at you and doesn’t say good morning. Those are facts. But we rarely stop there. Most of the time when someone walks by us like that we think, “Bob is ignoring me” or “Bob is avoiding me.” Often we take it to the next level and think, “Bob is mad at me.”
Most of us have also had an experience like this: You’re driving down the highway in the right lane and suddenly another driver swings right in front of you and goes off the exit ramp that you were approaching. What did you think? Most of us think, “That idiot! That person should learn how to drive. Some people just don’t care about anyone but themselves. What an inconsiderate moron.” (That’s the cleaned-up version.) Most of us would be angry or at least annoyed. But what if the person driving the car was driving a critically injured child to the hospital? We probably wouldn’t be angry or frustrated. It’s not the facts that produce the strong emotions we feel. It is the stories we tell ourselves about the facts that produce the strong emotions. And the amazing thing is that we have considerable power to change the stories we tell ourselves.
What this means is that we can affect how we feel and how we act by monitoring and changing the stories that we tell ourselves. Let’s go back to Bob. Bob walks by your desk, doesn’t look at you and doesn’t say good morning. Instead of telling the story, “Bob is ignoring me,” is it possible that the real story is “Bob isn’t feeling well” or “Bob just had a terrible drive in to work today and doesn’t feel like talking.” Those two stories are possible – we just don’t know what the real story is. We can just observe the facts until we talk to Bob. The thing is, we’re much less likely to talk to Bob if we convince ourselves that Bob is ignoring us or mad at us. That may be true, and if it is, having a conversation would be a good thing to do – to resolve whatever problem there is. But starting with that assumption usually doesn’t help. (Unless you have a reason to make that assumption – if you put a big dent in Bob’s car yesterday and didn’t apologize or offer to get it fixed, your story that he’s mad just might be right!)
As people of faith, we have an advantage when we start to think about the stories we tell ourselves. We know that everyone we meet is a child of God. We know that everyone we meet is someone that God loves, made in God’s image. We can ask ourselves, “Why would someone made in God’s image act like that person is acting?” We can begin by trying to think the best of others rather than thinking the worst. This doesn’t mean that we excuse or ignore bad behavior. It means that we try to think of why people who are made in the image of God might act very badly. Approaching someone who has acted in a way that hurts or frustrates us with this framework makes it more likely that the conversation will go well.
There are more things to know – and more things I learned over the last few days – to help these high stakes, high emotion conversations go well, but it’s tough to have a productive conversation with someone if you assume that person is evil. Most people aren’t.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to have “crucial conversations,” I will be leading some workshops to share what I’ve learned. Feel free to contact me to find out more.