Almost all of us have been there at one time or another. We are bothered by a problem that needs to be addressed. There is an elephant in the room, a wrong waiting to be righted, or a concern that weighs heavily on our mind. However, instead of tackling the issue head-on, we make small talk, act as if the “elephant” isn’t there, and formulate one excuse after another in order to avoid confrontation. If you have ever thought to yourself, It’s okay, I’ll deal with this dilemma next time, then this post is for you. The difficulties that arise from persistently leaving relationship concerns unaddressed are many and include:
- Hurtful situations continuing just as they are.
- Close relationships dying a slow death as an ever deepening chasm of separation occurs over time, and
- Emotional blow-ups resulting from months of pent up tension compounding and then bursting out all at once.
Fortunately, relational challenges don’t have to head down these paths. Having a courageous conversation that produces positive results is possible, and in this post you will find a simple, four step formula for a clear, tactful, and non-abrasive conversation. This tool is especially useful for problem solving with:
- Family members
- Friends, and
When all of the pieces are put together, the formula looks like this:
What I like about this process is that it is direct and clear. It leaves little room for misunderstanding, and takes the ideas of both parties into account. Now, let’s examine the key components of this four part process.
1) When you_____________ I feel________________.
- When you come home late for dinner I feel lonely.
- When you yell at me I feel sad and mad.
- When you leave your laundry all over the floor I feel overwhelmed.
These are just a few examples of the beginning of a courageous conversation. The key components are the words “you” and “I.” Both are important because:
- A selfish conversation is all about me,
- A demanding conversation is all about you, but
- A courageous conversation recognizes that there is a dynamic between the two of us that is creating the problem and proposes that the two of us partner together to resolve it.
In a courageous conversation blaming and arguing are kept to a minimum because the conversation is based on facts and not opinions. Heated personal views like, “You are bad” and “you are trying to hurt me” are accusations that not only heap shame on the other person, but they also lead to defensiveness and ongoing conflict. Because of this, these types of statements are best avoided.
On the other hand, stating, “When you____ I feel_______.” emphasizes two sets of facts; the other person’s actions and the feelings that you experience as a result of those actions. The other person is not villanized, so there is no need for defensiveness. The goal of this initial statement is to bring into the other person’s awareness the way you are being negatively impacted by their actions.
- When you come home late for dinner I feel lonely, because I really miss having you here.
- When you yell at me I feel sad and mad, because I don’t like being yelled at and it makes me feel like I’m not important to you.
- When you leave your laundry all over the floor I feel overwhelmed, because I have so much work to get done, and it’s hard for me to concentrate when the house is cluttered.
This second step is important because it opens the door to intimacy. I once heard intimacy described as in-to-me-see, or letting the other person peer into one’s inner world. This is exactly what the next step accomplishes. The “because” is important because it is an opportunity to share with the other person what is going on inside of us, which leads to greater understanding and an increased connection. It also takes the focus off of the other person’s actions and on to the deeper need that is being addressed.
3) In the future I would like_________________
- When you come home late for dinner I feel lonely, because I really miss having you here. In the future I would like us to plan at least three nights a week where we eat together.
- When you yell at me I feel sad and mad, because I don’t like being yelled at and it makes me feel like I’m not important to you. In the future I would like you to talk about things that make you upset instead of yelling.
- When you leave your laundry all over the floor I feel overwhelmed, because I have so much work to get done and it’s hard for me to concentrate when the house is cluttered. In the future I would like you to put your dirty laundry in the hamper.
Step three is where the courageous conversation moves into the problem-solving phase. This is your opportunity to be clear and direct by stating exactly what you would like to have happen. The more specific you are the better. However, it’s also important to understand that this is not a demand. Instead, you are presenting your best attempt at finding a solution–it is the beginning of the brainstorming process. The most important part of the conversation happens next.
4) Do you have any other possible solutions?”
The first time I heard this formula, step number four was not included, and this did not set well with me. However, without this last piece, this formula sounds more like a demand. This final step is imperative because it invites the other person into the resolution process. It acknowledges that our solution is not the only one and opens the door for partnering together as a team to find additional possibilities.
A Courageous Conversation Gone Right
A few months ago my wife let me know she felt overwhelmed when I left my books, computer, and work spread over the kitchen table. After acknowledging her need for an organized house from which to run her business, I also shared my feelings of being overwhelmed at the thought of packing everything up and putting it in another room, only to have to take it out again a short time later. Since our apartment doesn’t have enough room for a desk, which would have been the ideal solution, we felt stuck.
Fortunately, I have a creative wife. A few days later I walked in our apartment to find that the corner where I work had been reorganized. My amazing wife had moved a small bookshelf underneath our spiral staircase and now I have a place to put away my projects when I’m not working on them, and my wife feels less overwhelmed by the clutter in our home─a creative and gracious solution.
Keys to a Courageous Conversation
1) A courageous conversation is about both you and the other person.
2) It involves In-to-me-see, or letting others know how their behavior impacts you personally.
3) A courageous conversation is hopeful and presents the problem as solvable.
4) In courageous conversations, the other person is invited into the resolution process.
The Courageous Conversation Formula
“When you________________ I feel_________________ because_____________________. In the future I would like ____________________________. Do you have any other possible ideas for resolving this?”
One final note, you don’t have to use this formula exactly as it’s written. The goal is to have a dialogue that contains all four of these components, and it’s perfectly acceptable to add your own style and flow to make these statements feel less ridged when spoken.
Now that we’ve explored a formula for having a courageous conversation, is there a time when you’ve had an especially difficult conversation that went well? If so, what made this conversation go so well? Are there any additional components that you would add to this list? I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback in the comments below.