Reading about ‘difficult’ conversations or people can be quite confusing. This is because the term is used too broadly. By that I mean the topic covers a broad range of conversation types. I break difficult conversation into four distinct types. It is important to distinguish them, as they require different communication and self-protection strategies in order to have effective communication.
The first type is what I refer to as the ‘Challenging Conversation’. I bet you have had a few of these. This is when you, or the other, are emotionally aroused, specifically to the point where you can no longer think effectively. You know that time your emotions got the better of you and well, quite frankly it didn’t turn out too good. After all you are usually a really caring and considerate person, but in this case… The two key characteristics of challenging conversations are emotional overload and infrequency. That is, the upset person is usually cooperative and considerate.
The second is when this this type of reaction and other uncooperative communication strategies have become habitual. At some level you care, but well these techniques, for one reason or another, work and you don’t have a better way to achieve your intention. Such techniques include carrying on, intimidating, asserting your right, manipulating or some other means of control. Alternatively it might be that you are just too tired or stressed out to do anything else.
On the other hand perhaps you are trying to figure out how to have decent conversation with someone like this and are getting nowhere. In some way it is accepted that ‘power over’ conversations are, well, the ‘way it is’ even if we don’t like it. Or perhaps you don’t even realise this is what is going on. This is what I call the ‘Difficult Conversation’ habitually it ‘sort of works’, short term anyway. However it would be nice if there was a better way.
Finally we come to the ‘Toxic Conversations’. I break ‘Toxic Conversations’ into two groups. One group has accepted the use of ‘power over’ or ‘controlling’ conversations as the best way to be. This group has decided to use power over communication, whether consciously or not. This is different to ‘Difficult Conversations’; where it is habitual practice, however change is a possibility. There is openness to improving communication skills. In the ‘Toxic Conversation’ that is not the case the ‘power over’ and ‘controlling’ communication strategies are accepted as ‘best practice’.
The second type of ‘Toxic Conversation’ is with people who are biologically quite different; there was no real choice or decision on their part. They are just that way. They don’t care about anything but their own satisfaction.
It is really important to recognise the different conversation types, as you need to use very different communication and self-protection strategies for each type. If you use the wrong strategy it can cause more harm than good. And this is happening all too frequently, as many individuals’ aren’t aware of the different communication styles. Let alone how to distinguish them.
Note I consider it important to use the word ‘conversation’, rather than ‘people’, in our day-to-day life. This is because as we are usually so poorly taught cooperative and constructive communication skills we often find foundational conversations ‘difficult’. I refer to discussing certain ‘topics’, differences of opinions and perspectives, providing feedback and accountability conversations. These types of conversations are not difficult within and of themselves, once we have the skills. This means there is a potential that a ‘conversation’ is ‘difficult’ related to our skills rather than the ‘other’. Worse if we decide it is ‘them’ we feel justified in doing nothing; we can blame ‘them’. This doesn’t help. Change is within our own hands.
As a consequence while it is important to learn to make the distinctions between the types of difficult conversations it is also important to maintain personal responsibility and empowerment. Thus for starters I recommend one learn
- To distinguish between cooperative and controlling communication strategies.
- Get comfortable with all your emotions so you can recognise emotional overload from a controlling strategy.
- To consider if you are the ‘difficult’ individual in the conversation.
- Consider what your current communication skill level is and more specifically are you operating within it?
- To extract yourself from any conversation that YOU are finding ‘difficult’ in order to consider what YOU want to achieve in the conversation, if indeed you want to have it.
- To select your environment and the people you spend your time with.
I will address each of these points in future articles.