Having a meaningful conversation can be challenging at the best of times. When we want to speak about something that really matters – whether with a family member, colleague or friend – many of us withdraw rather than talk. We decide that it’s not the right time, we don’t have the necessary skills or that the other person won’t listen.
During the current coronavirus crisis when many of us are having to work from our kitchens, homeschool from our screens and live from day to day without knowing where the next paycheque is coming from, effective communication might seem even more out of reach.
The good news is that there are some simple things you can do that can make rather than break a conversation. You might find that using even one of them makes a difference and puts you in a better space with someone. Here are five top tips:
1. Take a breath
Before reaching out to another person, take a few moments to ground yourself. Find a quiet spot where you won’t be observed and take a few deep breaths.
If you can, place your hands on your belly. As you breathe in, let your hands be pushed out as if they were placed on a balloon that’s being blown up. As you breathe out, let your belly relax. If you’re sat down, uncross your legs and press your heels into the ground. Be aware of your breathing and any sensations in your body. Taking time to become ‘present’ will help you to manage any emotional reactions you have and to stay in your own balanced centre.
2. Find your opening
Before you talk, ask yourself: what is this conversation really about? Do I want to make a request, air a grievance or give an apology? If I had no fear about how the other person would react, what would I say? See what’s true for you. Now find your opening – what will be the very first thing you’ll say to the other person?
Your first words could be ‘I’d like us to take a few minutes to talk about something that really matters to me. Is that OK?’ or ‘I’m curious to hear what you made of x as I’ve been struggling to make sense of it.’ Even though you might feel a bit ridiculous, practise saying the words out loud. You’ll find the words easier to say to the other person if you’ve already spoken them aloud to yourself.
3. Listen deeply
Let the other person have their say before you launch in. Allow them to finish their sentence without interrupting them. Hold the intention that you’re not trying to fix anything or anyone as people will resist any attempt to be ‘done to.’ The more you tune into how the other person thinks and, more crucially, feels, the more receptive they’ll be to what you have to say (when it is your turn to speak.)
To demonstrate that you’re listening, use the following phrases: ‘It seems like you’re saying…’ and ‘What I’m hearing you say is…’ Reflecting back to the other person the essence of what they’ve said helps them to feel heard, which reduces hostility significantly.
Check your understanding by asking ‘Did I get you?’ If you sense that there’s still unfinished business that could scupper your relationship in the future, ask, ‘Is there more you want to say?’ Often a listening ear will put out a fire before it really catches light.
4. Acknowledge feelings
One of the most powerful things you can do is to name what’s so. For example, you might say, ‘This is a really difficult situation for both of us and I can see you’re struggling too.’
Including difficult feelings – your own or the other person’s – helps a conversation to keep going rather than derail into a stony silence or shouting match. If you feel disappointed, say so. If they feel frustrated, acknowledge this. If there’s resentment hanging in the air, name this.
It often helps to notice what’s not being said. Pay attention to the other person’s tone of voice, facial expression or body language. If someone tightens their jaw, this could mean that they’re feeling angry even though they don’t acknowledge it. Saying something like, ‘It looks like this is really annoying you’ can help the dialogue to keep going.
5. Ask for what you need
Relationships fester when conflict remains unaddressed. Tension often arises out of unmet needs. If you want more of a hand around the house but don’t express this, ‘toxic leakage’ comes out in barbed comments or a cold shoulder.
Remind yourself that you’re allowed to have needs. Take some time to check in with what you really want and ask for it. To make it more likely that someone will co-operate, try asking ‘Would you be willing to…?’ Think through what your response will be if you get a refusal – ‘This really matters to me so I suggest we review the situation in a couple of day’s time’ – is one way to keep the door open to another conversation.
Finally, remember that effective communication is a valuable life skill. One of the silver linings of these difficult times is that you might see more sharply what’s important. Any small gain you make when you talk with someone means you’ll be better able to deal with a similar situation in the future. Conversation is a real catalyst for creating positive change in your life.
Author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations (2019, Watkins) Available on Amazon and Audible www.bridgeworkconsulting.com