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Let’s Normalise Having Difficult Conversations

The old saying goes, “expectations are king.” I tend to agree. What we expect frames what we think ought to happen.

What do you expect? Do you expect a life without turmoil, suffering, and disagreements? These expectations are unlikely to lead to a flourishing life for they do not square with reality: life is filled with the awesome and the awful, the good and the bad, and a lot of the average everyday ordinariness in between.

When we don’t expect to have internal and external conflicts, we are caught unprepared. Many times, we start to think something has gone wrong because we have the expectation that “right” is smooth sailing sans obstacles.

Instead, we ought to embrace and shout from the rooftops: Conflict is normal!

Conflict can be immensely useful. When managed, conflict can lead to deeper and richer personal and professional relationships, creative and inclusive problem solving, and overall flourishing.

How do we help those caught in unmanaged conflicts to adjust expectations?

#1 Normalize Conflict

On our way home from a lovely and conflict free weeks’ vacation, a verbal fight broke out. The last two hours in the minivan were silent and uncomfortable. Others were distressed and wanted me to “do something about it” to fix this situation.

As I saw the conflict, it seemed normal and reasonable to me. My young adult kids misunderstood each other and were both greatly offended. This wasn’t surprising because misunderstandings are normal.

The problem doesn’t lie, necessarily, in the fact of having a conflict. Humans are going to misunderstand one another, we are going to disagree, we have bad moods and sometimes act without thinking. This is normal. Instead of lamenting that we find ourselves in an uncomfortable conflict, it is much more helpful to expect that we will face adversity and be equipped to address conflicts in a win/win collaborative and restorative way.

(I’m happy to say I passed by my boys making amends in the hallway before the luggage was unpacked. I suspect their father had something to do with this.)

#2 Normalize Gaining Basic Conflict Resolution Skills

There is nothing simple about being lost in the forest of conflict. Our thoughts are shouting at us, pulling us in many unhelpful directions. Expecting and training people to have a simple, straightforward strategy to address conflict when it occurs can help us act for the betterment of all involved.

While just about anyone reading this article has their favorite method of addressing conflict, mine is: prepare thoroughly for a dialogue, hold the dialogue, move into restoration of the relationship.

#3 Normalize Doing Hard Things

Difficult conversations, even when normalized and armed with skills to hold them, are still hard. Let’s encourage people to do hard things.

What makes a conversation difficult? It varies from person to person. I may have no problem talking with my spouse about conflicts regarding money, but I might find talking about the distribution of household chores fraught.

I may have no problem telling my best friend at work that the project she just submitted was riddled with typos and lacked depth, but, given my personality, if Nancy turned in the same kind of work (Nancy, the person who routinely rolls her eyes at me during meetings and gossips about me), I would find it hard to talk with her about her shotty performance.

A difficult conversation is difficult because of who you are. What is difficult for me may be smooth sailing for you, and vice versa. The point here is to recognize that some very important conversations need to be had, even when they are hard. Being equipped with skills can boost confidence and provide a clear path and vision as to how to have a hard conversation, but the skills more than likely won’t take the “hard” away.

Do it anyway. Push through the difficult because waiting for you on the other side is resolution. And if you work toward a solution that is win/win, collaborative, brought about through empathy and active listening, in addition to resolution, restoration of your relationship is likely to occur.

Yes! Restoration is possible. Even with eyerolling Nancy.


Merry Brown

Merry Brown owns and operates Third Party Workplace Conflict Restoration Services, hosts the weekly podcast Conflict Managed, and is a transformational consultant for The TCM Group based in London, England. Merry is passionate about training and empowering employees and businesses to deal with conflict swiftly and justly, with a win/win… MORE

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