With practice, difficult conversations might be made easier

January 04, 2008|By LISA PREJEAN

Now that the holidays are over, it's time to take stock.

Too much food.

Too little exercise.

Too much spending.

Too little sleep.

Too many relatives.

Too much avoidance.


What's that supposed to mean?

If you think about the conversations you had at family get-togethers, it will come to you. We all know there are certain topics we'd just as soon not mention. We prefer to avoid these issues so we don't have to deal with potential conflict.


Yet the issues don't go away.

It's hard to have difficult conversations, but it is worthwhile as long as you keep things in perspective, says Sheila Heen, co-author of "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most."

Heen shared a few pointers:

· State your purpose upfront. Do you merely want a listening ear, someone to empathize? Or, do you want the listener to provide possible solutions to the problem?

If you are frustrated and can't seem to figure out why the other person has made certain choices, admit it, suggests Heen, who wrote "Difficult Conversations" with Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton.

In a recent conversation about the care of an aging relative, Heen decided to take a new approach. She simply said, "It's hard for me to understand how you're feeling."

Because of her honesty, the conversation turned out much better than previous ones.

· Don't allow yourself to be pigeonholed into a specific role in the conversation. Most families or other groups will have an initiator, opposer, bystander and peacemaker.

"We take on roles without realizing it," Heen says.

The initiator is the person who makes suggestions on what the group will do.

The opposer will disagree with most ideas that are presented.

The bystander does nothing until others decide what should be done.

The peacemaker often allows his or her own interests or concerns to get lost in the process of making sure everyone else is happy.

It's important that people not get stuck in any one role because resentment can mount.

Also realize that people have different opinions of conflict. Some families view arguments as healthy discussions. Other families never argue because they don't want to damage relationships.

· Realize that if an argument occurs, you might not be arguing about an issue. You might be arguing about how you were treated or are being treated.

Heen said her husband recently complained about some dinner plans she had made. When they were discussing it, he admitted that he didn't want to change the plans. He was just upset that she hadn't consulted him first before making the plans.

· If someone makes a cutting remark during a discussion, halt it with humor. After the laughter, ask pointed, calm questions: "That was an interesting thing to say. Where did that come from?"

· Don't assume that you know how the other person feels. Ask questions. You don't have to agree. Just try to understand things from the other person's point of view. Also try to convey why you feel the way you do.

· Acknowledge that you are having trouble dealing with a difficult issue. Look at it as a hard issue. This will help you and the other people involved in the conversation to relax. Better communication will result.

"You have different views about it and that's normal," Heen says.

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Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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