Whether you're discussing an issue with your partner related to your day-to-day life, or at a family gathering debating topics like abortion or climate change regulations, conversations can get heated and boil over into full-blown arguments.
Kwame Christian is the director of the American Negotiation Institute. He offers a simple, three-step technique to engage in tough discussions while keeping the conversation cool:
- Acknowledge and validate the emotion. Recognize how everybody is feeling about the situation, even if it's difficult.
- Get curious with compassion. Ask lots of questions and genuinely listen to the answers.
- Engage in joint problem-solving. Once both parties have acknowledged how they're feeling and identified why there's an issue, come up with solutions together — so that there is buy-in from both sides.
If you're dreading getting together with loved ones because you want to avoid a heated discussion, check out more from my conversation with Christian:
JULIA FURLAN: If you know that a conversation is going to be difficult or charged, what are the ways to start [it]?
KWAME CHRISTIAN: Well, number one, we need to frame the conversation effectively. So with framing, we're trying to find the storyline for the conversation. Why are we coming together today? And my challenge to you is to try to find an explanation that is so overwhelmingly positive that it would almost make the other side look ridiculous if they rejected it.
So, for example, I'm married and we have a 4-year-old, and if my wife and I aren't on the same page ... before we even begin the discussion, I want to explain why we're having the discussion: "Whitney, I love you. And I just want to make sure that we're on the same page because I know both of us want what's best for Kai. I want to figure out what the best way for us to proceed would be." She cannot reject that.
FURLAN: What I hear in that is you stating the shared objective, not your personal objective. You're not saying, "I want Kai to live X or Y way." You're saying, "I want us to figure out what's best for both of us." Right?
CHRISTIAN: Exactly. So I think what we need to do is recognize that there's a difference between the micro and macro levels. So on the micro level, there might be something specifically that we disagree with. So we're not on the same page on this specific thing.
But as we expand our perspective to the macro level, there are going to be some principles or goals that we do have in common. So when I'm framing, I'm talking about that shared outlook and shared perspective. And then we can move to the micro and figure out what it is we do next.
FURLAN: What if ... the person that you're speaking with doesn't recognize you're upset? If you're saying, "I see that you're upset. I hear you. I'm listening. I care," but they're not doing that for you?
CHRISTIAN: So here's my favorite thing about the framework: The same steps can be applied for yourself before the conversation happens. So before the conversation, you could use this as an introspective process to calm yourself down.
So first, acknowledge and validate our own emotions. How am I feeling?
Number two, getting curious with compassion: OK, I'm upset. Why am I upset? Why did that make me upset? What is it really on a fundamental level that's bothering me?
And then joint problem-solving. This is where we're reconciling the differences between our hearts and our minds. What are my emotional needs? What are my substantive needs? And so substantively, those are things that we're actually giving somebody — something tangible or a behavior change. Then there's the emotional side. I just want to be recognized. I want to be heard. I want to be understood. I want an apology. All of those things are free to give. But oftentimes the person won't give it to you unless you make it clear that that is your goal during the conversation.
A lot of times, the proper solution is going to use some mixture of both the substantive and the emotional. And so this process puts you in a better mindset for the actual discussion. As you prepare, something else that you could do is anticipate the things that they can potentially say that will make you upset. Then you turn those into "if-then" propositions. If they say this, then I'll say that. So it becomes a little bit less scary, a little bit less threatening. And you can be more nimble in the conversation.
FURLAN: That's so interesting, because I think that's a step that people often overlook.
CHRISTIAN: Right. But we never stop and ask ourselves, why do we want it? We're so focused on trying to understand the other side that we don't take the time to understand ourselves and that added clarity makes us more effective during the conversation.
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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. We'd love to hear from you! Email us at or send a voice note to LifeKit@npr.org.