difficult conversations

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
– Mahatma Ghandi

I had a conversation this week with a very important person in my life. Long story short, I completely disagreed with a decision he had recently made and I was worried about how it would affect my future.

Since I had just wrapped up a very long day, I was tired and my brain was running on fumes. I was also sort of angry at his decision. I didn’t want either of these issues to cause me to say the wrong thing – so I said nothing. I was afraid to rock the boat, choosing instead to kick the can down the road. What came out of my mouth was something along the lines of sounds good, I’ll give that some thought.

Since that conversation, the issue has been weighing on me more and more. It’s distracting me from my work. It’s what I thought about when I went to bed last night. And when I woke up this morning.

The lesson here is this: the initial fear and stress¬†of saying the wrong thing has grown exponentially in each passing day. Now I’m worried about it much more than I was in the moment. I would have been much better off saying something, anything, other than what I said… but for future reference I think the best response would have been this:

Seek first to understand

As one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, this is the first step that must be taken in any form of constructive debate.

If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. Do any of the following sound familiar?

“Oh, I know just how you feel. I felt the same way.” “I had that same thing happen to me.” “Let me tell you what I did in a similar situation.”

Because you so often listen autobiographically, you tend to respond in one of four ways:

  • Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree.
  • Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference.
  • Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems.
  • Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviors based on your own experiences.

Get on the same team

A disagreement doesn’t have to be adversarial. This means letting go of the natural desire to win an argument to satisfy your ego, thinking about the mutual goal (or thinking win-win, another one of the seven habits), and giving the person the benefit of the doubt.

Just say it

Once everything is understood and the other person feels understood, just say it:

I think I understand where you’re coming from but I disagree with that decision. I disagree because of A, B, and C.¬†

If this is stated without shame or judgement and with respect and humility, it saves a lot of future angst. I would also bet that it would also improve the relationship rather than hurt it.