On today’s Let’s Talk About It: Skills for Better Conversation, WFDD's David Ford and Dialogue Company Founder David Campt turn to your questions and concerns about challenging discussions you’ve had, or tough talks you’d like to have but lack the confidence to initiate. The good news? It turns out that there are a few basic steps for starting difficult conversations that apply almost no matter what the topic is. 

Listener question #1: “My friends are struggling with news burnout and don't seem to want to educate themselves on what's happening in the world these days which I find frustrating since they still want to engage in the discussion without bothering to be informed.”

Step #1: Check yourself first.

Consider the possibility that your perceptions are not fully accurate. You, like most people, may have a somewhat biased or distorted perception of things. So, before you begin to engage with someone you disagree with, at least consider that your perceptions are not fully accurate. In this instance, for example, you might ask yourself, ‘Do my friends really have less information about the topics than I do, or do they have information that is just very different from what I think is accurate? Are my friends really less informed, or are they just differently informed?’ It’s important to not be too judgemental either way and recognizing this subtle difference matters a lot in terms of how you proceed. 

Listener question #2: “In our extended family we can talk about politics, religion, even taxes, but we cannot discuss the harm caused to us all by my now ex-spouse. The divorce was very recent, but the over 20 years of abuse feels like this individual's permanent legacy to us.”

Step #2: Remind yourself that you have a right to your own feelings.

There are many emotional topics that never come up for fear of disrupting the family dynamic. So, in this case, for Step 1 you might check your own perceptions with the question, ‘Am I frustrated because we are not talking about this trauma that I think is affecting everyone, or am I frustrated because we’re not talking about the trauma that is affecting me?’ Next, it’s on to Step 2: Before even broaching the subject, remind yourself that you have a right to your own feelings, no matter what they are. Yes, you may later discover that your feelings are driven by a distorted perspective, but you have a right to those feelings. 

Listener question #3: “I struggle with setting boundaries in interpersonal relationships. I often find myself staying silent about what bothers me out of fear. How can I effectively communicate boundaries with friends and family?” 

Step #3: You have the right to report your own experiences to other people. 

It’s dicey to tell people what they should feel or what they should do, but you have the right to tell people what is going on within yourself. Step 3 is about remembering this, and then sharing your own experience. In this case, for example, if you don’t express what your needs are with the people in your inner circle, you cannot expect them to figure them out on their own.

Step 3 is about being very clear and narrowly focused about what happens within you: ‘When this happens, I feel uncomfortable (or sad, or whatever it is).’ You are not saying anything about the other person’s behavior or their character, you are reporting your own specific experience. 

Listener question #4: “One of the rough conversations growing up with my father was racial trauma he experienced either inflicted by members of a different race, or racism he suffered within our own community.”

Step #4: Clarify what your request is from somebody else. 

It’s also important to recognize that sometimes requests are not met. That request might be to validate your feelings. That request might be to prove that the other person has the same feeling as you or to change their behavior. Yes, you have a right to your own feelings, you can make a request. But that request is not a demand because you recognize that requests may not be met. 


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