I recently had a difficult conversation with my mother-in-law’s husband. I was part of moving her out of their small assisted-living apartment into an even smaller place. It had been a week in coming, but now it was the night before. Only his closet and his large armoire-sized desk remained to be packed. And yet again, I was asking him to finish packing up his things before the movers arrived in the morning.
Then it got ugly.
I still wonder what it would have been like if his hearing aids actually worked, and my normal voice didn’t have to be at yelling level to start with. But oh my! What volume I had as I communicated my anger over his still unpacked items. It’s been a few weeks now, and that conversation has never felt settled to me. Sitting down to write this article on the three conversations that go on in our minds during any difficult conversation has actually unlocked the key to why it still feels unsettled.
Every difficult conversation actually contains three parts,* but we normally only communicate with the other person about one of them. I’ll let you take a guess which one.
1. THE WHAT CONVERSATION: This is what actually happened. In my case, it was the closet and desk that didn’t get cleaned out. It’s the trigger, the external focal point.
2. THE FEELINGS CONVERSATION: This is all that’s happening internally on the emotional level. I felt angry, but truth is, that emotion flowed out of several other factors. I felt disrespected over the fact that I’d explained the situation several times before. I felt concerned about the safety of the situation. And I felt resentful, or maybe sorry for myself, over how much of my vacation was being taken up through their transition process.
3. THE IDENTITY CONVERSATION: This is about the places where this difficult conversation touches on your identity. In my situation, there where latent thoughts like, “What does my outburst say about me as a Christian, and what does my son think of me, having witnessed my tirade?”
When we enter a difficult conversation, all three of these areas are playing a role. Often, only the “What Conversation” is outwardly recognized, but the “Feeling” and, sometimes, the “Identity” conversations are often the silent drivers of the conflict. Becoming aware of these three aspects, and when appropriate, giving each of them voice can help us better navigate difficult conversations.
It’s important to also realize that the person(s) we are having conflict with have these three conversations going on as well. I can only imagine that my mother-in-law’s husband could have been thinking:
THE WHAT CONVERSATION: “She certainly is making a lot of decisions about our stuff. Who gave her the right to pitch so many of our things?”
THE FEELINGS CONVERSATION: “I’m sick of all this change. Everything is shifting, and I feel so unsettled. I’m burdened with how much there is to do. If my wife wasn't declining, then we wouldn't have to move. I feel hopeless and disrespected.”
THE IDENTITY CONVERSATION: “I’m practically deaf, and that’s why I don’t have a voice. I should be able to handle this myself. The way they are getting into our stuff from finances to food cupboards makes me wonder if I have been a good husband. Do they think I’m an idiot?”
Learning to recognize these three conversations in ourselves, and realizing that all three exist in the other person as well, can help us to better communicate with others on difficult matters.
Think back to a recent difficult conversation you’ve had, or maybe one you need to have. What are the elements involved in these three conversations in your situation? What might be going on in these three areas for the other person(s)?
* The basis of this article comes from the book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.