Difficult conversations -- whether with friends, family or spouses -- are hard enough without one wrong step turning them into a full-blown fight. Here are four ways to ensure you keep them productive and not explosive.
"Level and Edit" Your Thoughts
Psychologist John Gottman is a relationship expert who helps people communicate potentially volatile topics and ideas in constructive ways. He suggests two techniques, called levelling and editing, in order to refine your ideas more carefully.
The person you're trying to communicate with might know you well, but they're not psychic. Levelling simply means sharing your perspective. It helps add context and brings the both of you to common ground. A simple way to level is to start a sentence with the phrase "I'm feeling..." It also ensures you don't start off by blaming or accusing the other person of something.
Not everything that comes to your mind should come out of your mouth. It can be tempting to say exactly whatever's on your mind, but in many cases it would be detrimental to the conversation or, at best, not helpful. Edit your thoughts. Remove the portions of your ideas that would only offend or upset, and keep your expression confined to the conversation (don't bring in other arguments).
Write Your Ideas Out
When you write your ideas out, you can better detach your emotions and explore it from a different perspective. With all this reflection, you might be able to better communicate your ideas and express them to someone else.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos forces his team to write six page memos prior to meetings in order to better communicate complicated ideas. The idea is that no one can write six pages about something without carefully thinking it through.
Now, you might not be able to apply this technique to absolutely every situation. Nonetheless, when you're processing thoughts or feelings, sometimes it helps to write it out and actually think about it. You might even want to start a journal so that you can look at how you've felt in the past, and see if there are any patterns or ways you've resolved these emotions.
Validate the Other Person's Thoughts
Expressing yourself is only part of the equation. Constructive conversations are two way streets. As such, you need to listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Acknowledge their thoughts, so that the other person knows what they're saying isn't unreasonable or out of pocket.
Similarly, when you're speaking, consider your perspective in contrast with theirs. If it's extremely far out, moderate your point to make it more understandable.
When in Doubt, Slow Down
When you feel the heat of the moment, take a few seconds to slow down. Listen carefully to where the conversation is going -- what the two (or few) of you are saying, where the subject matter is going, and whether you can frame your thoughts more constructively. Here are four common mistakes you and your fellow conversationalists might make.
There are many techniques to slow down a conversation. Writer and marketer Mauricio Estrella suggests the simple technique of turning away from each other and continuing the conversation:
That's right. Continue where you left. With the same energy. Just imagine you're still facing the other person, as if nothing had changed, and watch how magic happens.
After a couple of minutes, this always helps to end the discussion. Thanks to this method, we have learned a lot about ourselves and each other. And saved countless moments of angry body language and words bouncing between the walls of our home.
Once you see a conversation becoming unproductive, you can use Estrella's technique (or another one) to meander your way back into a constructive path.
There is an art to conversations. It's important to slow down so you can add context and properly frame your thoughts. Write your ideas out so that you'll have thought them through more clearly before talking about them. Listen carefully and validate other people's thoughts. Avoid criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. When a conversation is becoming nasty, suggest returning to the original topic.