JULIA FURLAN, HOST:
COVID-19 has come for all of our plans and overextended us in so many ways, but I think one of the most difficult things about this moment is having clear conversations about stuff that we really never had to talk about before.
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FURLAN: Even within friend groups and even within households, people have different ways of making decisions about COVID-19, and there's a lot of friction that comes out of these choices. Also, we're just stuck - at home with other people or alone - simmering, even braising in our own little resentments so that by the time somebody doesn't put their dish in the sink or flakes on the Zoom hangout, we're pissed.
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FURLAN: But you know what? The only way out is through. And if we can maybe have some better conversations about the resentments that we're holding, it's going to get a little bit easier.
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FURLAN: Hi. I'm Julia Furlan, and this NPR's LIFE KIT. And I've brought in some help with these hard conversations.
KWAME CHRISTIAN: Let me get my podcaster voice ready. (Clears throat) OK.
CHRISTIAN: Hi. My name's Kwame Christian and I am the director of the American Negotiation Institute.
FURLAN: Kwame gave me some advice about how to do better when we're in opposition with the folks in our lives.
What can people do to be less afraid of conflict, to get used to difficult conversations - or not even necessarily difficult conversations, but conversations that require honesty and directness?
CHRISTIAN: Yes, this is so good. This makes me so happy. All right. So here's the thing. There's no way around it. It's not going to immediately feel easy. I think about the fear of conflict, conflict avoidance, like any other phobia. And so we use the fundamental tenants of cognitive behavioral therapy. We're going to use exposure therapy. We're going to put ourselves in the position to feel that fear but move through it.
And so what I tell people is you have to look at every single interaction as an opportunity to practice. You're getting coffee, they got your order wrong. It was a little bit wrong, but it was wrong. You could just let it slide, or you could use it as an opportunity to practice so you're going to be stronger for the next one. Once you have those conversations, you feel that fear, and then you end up on the other side and you say, I'm alive (laughter).
CHRISTIAN: That wasn't too bad. Let me do it again tomorrow.
CHRISTIAN: And then you do it again. Oh, my goodness. It worked and I got what I wanted. I didn't think it was even possible. This is fantastic. And so you're building your confidence, building your confidence every single time.
FURLAN: We all know what it's like to have an argument and get over it or, like, agree to disagree. But I guess that what I want to get into is, like, what is the difference between that and having conflict resolution, like an actual thing that is resolved? Or are these just semantic differences that don't matter?
CHRISTIAN: Oh, no. These are not just semantic differences. It really does matter. The difference between arguing and conflict resolution is that arguing is about winning and winning in a way where my winning necessitates your losing. And nobody wants to lose, and so it becomes a war of attrition. And even if you do end up winning and the person concedes, then what's compliance going to look like down the road? Because they didn't like the process, they still might want to get you back for making them feel silly in the conversation. So even if you win, you lose.
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CHRISTIAN: In conflict resolution, your goal is to figure out what the future looks like. What's our relationship looking like projected into the future? What do I need to do? What do you need to do in order for us to work this out? And when you approach it that way, it makes it more likely for the person to, first, engage in the conversation wholeheartedly, and it makes it more likely for you to have a resolution that actually leads to something meaningful going forward.
FURLAN: If you know that a conversation is going to be difficult or charged or oppositional, what are the ways to start that conversation?
CHRISTIAN: Well, No. 1, 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 to have a conversation? 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, what I want to do is 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, and so I want to figure out what the best way for us to proceed would be. She cannot reject that, right (laughter)?
FURLAN: Right, because what I hear in that is you stating the shared objective, not your personal objective. You're not saying, like, 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, in general, 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 where we do have that in common. And then we can move to the micro and figure out what it is we do next.
FURLAN: Right, like shared living situations are very ripe for this.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah. This is a tough one.
FURLAN: Like when I used to live with roommates, one of my roommates had, like, a steady schedule of groceries and blah, blah, blah. And there was this salad dressing. And I always forgot to buy salad dressing and didn't know how to make it then. It was in college. So I would often use the salad dressing. And, you know, it sounds like a small thing, but it ended up being, like, kind of a big deal. Like, this tiny conversation became a conversation about, like, the very big differences that were in the relationship.
CHRISTIAN: Oh, this is good. This is good. And I think this might be an opportunity to talk about the compassionate curiosity framework. This is a framework that we can put on every single difficult conversation, whether it's at work or at home. And so the three steps of the process are, No. 1, acknowledge and validate emotions, No. 2, get curious with compassion and, No. 3, engage in joint problem-solving.
So, Julia, let's use this really great example about the food situation back in the day. And so first, before we even get into the substance, we need to acknowledge the emotions. What's the emotion of the other side? They're not happy. They're frustrated (laughter).
FURLAN: No, they are not happy. Yeah, yeah.
CHRISTIAN: And so we have to acknowledge that. So you say, listen; it seems like you're really upset right now, and that makes sense because you bought this food for you, and I used it without your permission. You have every single right to be upset right now.
FURLAN: Yeah. And to be clear, I know that I was a little [expletive], and I really regret my past actions.
FURLAN: Anyway, keep going.
CHRISTIAN: Good (laughter). Right, because here's the thing. If you deny the emotion, then they say, oh, you know what? I don't think Julia knows how I feel. I'm going to ramp it up a little bit and she's going to feel how I feel, right?
CHRISTIAN: And so the thing is those emotions are going to stand in our way from productive dialogue. Acknowledge it, validate it, and move forward. And then you transition into getting curious with compassion. And so we're asking questions - open-ended questions in a way that is designed to not be perceived as a threat. So what I say is any question that starts with who, what, where, when or how - notice I avoid why because in the heat of the moment, people are going to interpret that as judgmental.
FURLAN: Right. Why are you so mad? It's just a little salad dressing.
CHRISTIAN: Exactly. Yeah, they don't like that.
FURLAN: (Laughter) Moving on from this example, like, what if you're upset and they're upset? Like, what if there's upset on both sides and the person that you're speaking with doesn't recognize you're upset? Like, you're doing all of this, like, 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 three steps can be applied for yourself before the conversation happens. Because when we see that conversation happening, we can have a pretty good idea, oh, yeah, I'm probably going to get a little bit upset right now. 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? No. 2, 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 that we can experience and recognize and perceive.
But 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. And 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.
And as you prepare, something else that you could do is anticipate the things that they can potentially say that will make you upset, and 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. I think that that's a step that people often overlook, you know?
FURLAN: They're so busy. They're like, I want to do this; I want to get here; I want this, you know?
CHRISTIAN: Right, but we never stop and ask ourselves why 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.
FURLAN: What are some pitfalls that people often make when they're in a disagreement or they're in a difficult conversation?
CHRISTIAN: Yeah. So pitfall No. 1, we need to be mindful about slowing down so we don't say something that we regret. So one of the things that you can do to slow down is focus on enunciating every single word. And again, you don't want to do it in a way that makes you sound pretentious, but...
FURLAN: Yeah, I was about to say, doesn't that sound, like, super condescending...
FURLAN: ...If you're like, could you please listen to me right now?
CHRISTIAN: Right. Well, the thing is, usually, you're still going to be going too fast, so you enunciating is going to bring you down to a normal tone. That's the first thing.
FURLAN: I see.
CHRISTIAN: And then the other thing is the concept of a micro negotiation. I'm going to break this conversation down into maybe two or three conversations. First one, I'm going to try to get them to be open to changing their perspective. The next conversation, I'm going to get them to think, hey, there might be another option. I'm willing to entertain those options. And then in the third conversation, I might try to get them to actually commit to one of those new options. But if I tried to do all of that at one time, it would've been disastrous.
FURLAN: Right, right. When you're in a conflict or when you're in an argument, what are some tools for when it boils over? What do you do when it gets very heated but you still want to push forward?
CHRISTIAN: So I think about it this way. Imagine if you're a basketball coach and you see a team that you're coaching and they're just getting smacked, right? This game is getting out of control. What's happening? What do you do? You call a timeout. And so in a conversation, we have to do the same thing. And so one of the simple techniques I do is say, first of all, thank you for this information. It's really helpful. And a lot of it is stuff that I didn't know, so what would be helpful for me is if you give me a little bit of time to process this, and then we can come back and finish the conversation another day or later in the day, right?
Because what you're saying there is not, hey, I'm weak; I'm emotional; I need some time. You're not saying that. What you're saying is that, I'm a cerebral person. You've said something that's profound, something that matters. I need to process this in order to have this conversation at a level that you deserve, that demonstrates the respect for you and for the relationship. And so, take a break if you need a break.
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FURLAN: A lot of the conflicts that people have that is the most important to them is with the people that they love the most, who are in their lives most often. I mean, this is true for me. So my dad and I argue about politics, like, pretty much all the time. He thinks it's, like, very funny to say things that I hate, and I am so irritated by it. How do you have a conflict that is lifelong with someone without, like, cutting them out of your life?
CHRISTIAN: Well, first, let me push you on that assumption. Depending on the person and depending on the severity of the infraction, maybe removing them from your life is the right answer. And so conflict is a tool that allows you to repair and strengthen damaged relationships, but it also helps you to identify and remove malignant relationships, as well. So that's the first thing.
Now, bringing it back to, what should I do if it's a lifelong conflict? In that situation, again, we have to acknowledge that. Because for the other side, the easy response they're going to say to you, once you bring it up is, well, Julia, if it was such a big deal, why didn't you bring it up 30 years ago? Right?
CHRISTIAN: They're going to feel like you're just making a big deal for the sake of making a big deal. And so, what I would say is this. I'm going to acknowledge that awkwardness and say, listen - this has been something that has been going on for a long time within our relationship, and it's bothered me from the beginning, and I haven't found the right way to do it. And honestly, I was a little bit scared. I was a little bit scared of having this conversation with you. But for me, our relationship is important enough for me to bring this up. And so my hope is that we can have a conversation and figure out what it is that we can do to make our relationship better. Are you open to that? And when you start off like that, I mean, it's hard to reject that frame.
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FURLAN: Oftentimes, conflict arises in a situation where one person has a different level of power than the other person, and I think that that really can change the dynamic. How do you recommend addressing a difficult conversation where there is an inherent power imbalance between the two people?
CHRISTIAN: Right. So in those situations, what you have to do first is analyze the situation. And once you recognize there's a power imbalance - so maybe within your organization, somebody who manages you, the leader of the organization, you have a conflict with them - you have to recognize that you don't have authority but, at best, you have influence. You can shift their decision, but it's going to ultimately be their choice. And so I would want to acknowledge that. I would say, Julia, this is your company. You built it for the last 15 years, and I wanted to bring something up to you.
We often think about emotions just in the negative, acknowledging negative emotions. I'm sad, mad, frustrated, whatever it might be - but also pride. You have pride in the fact that you've worked so hard. I'm going to acknowledge that, too. And then I'm going to state the problem and then transition to getting curious with compassion. So this is the problem I'm experiencing. What do you think about this? What solutions do you have? OK. No, that's a really good point. Thank you for sharing that. So I tried that, and then this was the result. So considering that, what do you think we should do? Right?
And so what you're doing is you're allowing them to persuade themselves. Oftentimes, it's that they don't understand something. And instead of coming in and saying, hey, you don't understand things - people tend to not like that - you ask questions in a way that exposes their ignorance to themselves. Think about it like the movie "Inception." You want them to feel like it's their idea. And if they feel that sense of ownership, then there's going to be more commitment, more buy-in. And it makes it more likely for them to make that behavior change that you're looking for.
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FURLAN: How do you know when a conflict is resolved?
CHRISTIAN: Oh, great question. It's never resolved.
FURLAN: (Laughter) No, but I just only want to do it once, Kwame, please.
FURLAN: I just - one time is great. That's it, right?
CHRISTIAN: I wish I could tell you that. But (laughter) it's just not the case because - I think about negotiation and conflict resolution as a never-ending game of chess. From the moment we interact with somebody, we're constantly positioning ourselves. We're constantly interacting. We're having these conversations, and we're looking for opportunities to strengthen the relationship. And so after you have the initial conversation, there's going to be maintenance on the back end that has to occur. And a lot of times, we celebrate too soon. And we say, oh, thank goodness. It's handled.
FURLAN: Great, resolved.
CHRISTIAN: And it's never that easy. You have to keep on touching base and engaging in a little bit of relationship maintenance and conflict resolution, negotiation. Those tools can help you do that.
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FURLAN: OK. So maybe that's a hard pill to swallow. Resolving an argument is rarely a one and done thing. But that's OK. By revisiting it occasionally, you're demonstrating care for the other person, and you're strengthening your relationship with them.
So let's do a little recap, shall we? Before you even start, frame the argument in a way that the other person is going to want to get behind. Acknowledge the emotions, especially if they're bad, and ask the other person questions to fully understand their point of view. And then, brainstorm some solutions. Also, I got to say, as a producer, a little bit of prep work can go a really long way, so make sure that you know where you're coming from and where you want to get to. And finally, take a break if you need to. Get a glass of water. Go to the bathroom. Whatever it is, it's OK. This stuff is hard.
For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted on the ins and outs of sunscreen. Spoiler alert - you still need sunscreen year-round. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT, which I know you do, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And if you've got a good tip, we want to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at email@example.com. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle and Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant, who does everything wonderfully, is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Julia Furlan. Thanks for listening.
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