From Awful to Awesome Conversations (Part 2)

In last week’s post I introduced the topic of dealing with Difficult Conversations and the three conversations that underlie a difficult conversation:

  • The “What happened?” Conversation
  • The Feelings Conversation
  • The Identity Conversation

The concept of the three underlying conversations is taken from the book Difficult Conversations.

For part 2 we are going to explore The Feelings Conversation.  If I had to pick one of the three underlying conversations to be the most important, this would be it.

Feelings Matter.

Feelings matter because they are a big part of what makes significant relationships so rich and satisfying.  Feelings like love and pride, silliness and warmth, and even disappointment, hurt and anger let us know that we are fully alive. Feelings make life worth living.

Feelings matter because they are what drive our behavious and actions.  Our behaviours and actions create the results we get in our lives.

Feelings can also be scary.  When we lay our feelings on the table, we run the risk of hurting others and of ruining relationships.  We also put ourselves in a position to get hurt.  What if the other person doesn’t take our feelings seriously or responds by telling us something we don’t want to hear?

Feelings can require a minimum level of being comfortable with vulnerability in order to feel okay with expressing them.  All too often in difficult conversations instead, we have the tendency to take feelings out the conversations rather than express our vulnerability. (Note: The ability to be vulnerable with feelings is often incorrectly viewed as a weakness instead of the strength that it is.  More about this in a later article).

Solving problems seems easier than talking about emotions. By trying to take feelings out of the conversation and sticking to the “business at hand”, we think we can reduce the risks associated with expressing feelings.  The problem is that so often, feelings ARE the business at hand and ignoring them is nearly impossible.

One way or another feelings will be heard.  Sometimes they leak out.  Sometimes they burst out.  Either way, feelings that are handled indirectly or without honesty usually prevent effective communication and reduce the quality of relationships.

If you’re reading this article, you probably value quality relationships, so let’s talk strategies for dealing with the ‘feelings conversation’ within difficult conversations…

First, Understand what your feelings are

We think we know what our feelings are but often we don’t know.  This isn’t because we are dumb, but because feelings are usually complex and can be challenging.

Dealing with emotions can be uncomfortable.  As a result, uncomfortable emotions often end up getting disguised as emotions we are better able to handle. So take the time to explore where you get stuck and explore your emotional family history.  Ask questions such as, ‘How did my family handle emotions?’, ‘Which emotions do I now find easy to express, and with whom?’  Usually we deal with emotions in a certain way simply because that is how we’ve always done it.   But it’s never too late for a review.

Another common tendency is for bundles of emotions, sometimes contradictory feelings, to masquerade as a single emotion.  By exploring the gamut of emotions that exist within you at any time (and especially during difficult conversations), you are then better equipped when the time comes to express them.  Just one example is the emotion of ‘worry’.  When explored further, you may actually be dealing with fear, or suspicion, or anxiety, or a mixture of these.  The key to note here is that while these emotions are very similar, the subsequent course of action may be different as your choice of label for your emotions changes.

Second, Negotiate with your feelings

Feelings are always preceded by thoughts and thought can always be changed.  The view you take of an event (e.g. the actions of another person) will influence which emotions you associate with the event.  Being objective is not always easy and self-esteem is often a mitigating factor in how events are perceived. In the end, perception is always the catalyst for emotions.  So ask yourself, ‘What else could this mean?’

Remember, it is rarely the ultimate intention of any person to harm another.  When someone (me and you included) harms another, the ultimate intention is usually to make ourselves feel better, not to harm another.  When we remember this, our feelings towards ourselves and others are likely to be more positive.

Third, Bring feelings to the conversation

After taking the time to understand your feelings and negotiate with them, express them.  Sure, might sound easier said than done.  I promise it gets easier with practice.

Here are the things to remember:

  • Don’t evaluate, just share.  Get everyone’s feelings on the table, heard and acknowledged before sorting through them.  You can establish an evaluation-free zone based on non-judgement.
  • Share feelings purely.  Without blame and judgement.
  • Don’t vent.  Working to get feelings into the conversation is almost always helpful as long as you do so in a purposeful way.  If you are able to share feelings with skill, you can avoid many of the potential costs associated with expressing feelings.
  • Your feelings don’t have to be rational to be expressed. Thinking that you shouldn’t feel they way you do rarely changes how you feel.  You can preface the expression of your emotions by fir stating that you are uncomfortable with having the feelings, or that you weren’t sure they made sense, but then express them.  You can decide what, if anything, to do about them later.
  • Focus feelings toward the problem, not another person or people.  Focus on how you feel before looking to what might be the cause.
  • Try to express the full spectrum of your emotions rather than one umbrella emotion.  This brings depth and complexity to the conversation and more the other person to reflect on.
  • Do not equate bad feelings with being a bad person.  Recognise that good people can have bad feelings.  Accept that feelings are natural and normal.
  • Do not monopolise.  Allow everyone the opportunity to share their feelings.
  • Listen.  Really listen.

Even if you don’t agree with the other person in the conversation, acknowledge their feelings.  By doing so, you are letting the other person know that what they have said has made an impression on you, that their feelings matter to you, and that you are working to understand them.

Don’t be surprised if what I suggest sounds like hard work.  The extra brain power required to create quality conversations takes additional energy compared to simplifying actions and emotions – a default for many people.  In the long run however, investing in purposeful conversation will save you energy through greater understanding of yourself and those you care about, resulting in more regular quality conversations and enhanced relationships.  I promise it gets much easier, even feels natural, the more you try it.

Much love,


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