Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: Difficult Conversations and Well-Being


By: Julia Morelli, Senior Fellow, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, and President, GMU Instructional Foundation

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”Aristotle, Ancient Greek philosopher

Do you dread difficult conversations? While it may not feel like it is within your power to make difficult conversations productive, there are strategies and skills that can help. Making conscious choices about what to do or not do in your discussions can help improve your physical, psychological, and social well-being.

Difficult conversations can involve high emotions, any topics you do not want to talk about, circumstances in which you or someone else feels vulnerable or confused, or situations where there is a fear of consequences. All of these factors increase anxiety and induce stress, negatively affecting your well-being in the process.

Strategies to Manage Difficult Conversations Well

These types of conversations are challenging on several levels, so breaking the elements down into steps makes them more manageable.

To start, remember that conflict is often personal. There is a tendency to think that if it is work-related, it should not feel personal. However, that is not necessarily the case. Former Mason professor John Burton, one of the founders of modern-day conflict resolution principles stated that, “Conflict describes a relationship in which each party perceives the other’s goals, values, interests, or behaviors as antithetical to its own.” That means it is common to feel like it is personal, and it only takes one person to perceive conflict to affect the situation. A perception of conflict shifts the dynamics of interactions.

Second, know that conflict is created by a violation of expectations. This wisdom was shared by a co-mediator years ago. It made me think about how often we do not recognize our own expectations until they are violated. What makes it more challenging is that usually our first instinct is not to try and understand what is going on, but to blame the other person. Even if we can articulate our expectations, we are not as likely to engage in self-reflection and try to understand our role in the situation. Remember – taking time to hit the pause button can lead to more successful outcomes. There is value in taking time before responding.

Although the fight or flight response was identified a century ago, it was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which sparked many conversations about emotional intelligence among leaders. It describes our natural response to physical and psychological threats. Basically, a small inner portion of the brain called the amygdala activates the fight or flight response and can affect the cerebral cortex or reasoning part of the brain. By understanding and using mindfulness and breathing techniques, we create another option – the flex response.

Next, remember to check in with your body. Although we tend to think and talk about the body and mind as being separate, stress shows up in the body before we realize that it is affecting what is happening in our heads. Stress resides in all of us in different ways at various times. It can show up as a tightening of the jaw, neck or back pain, digestive issues, or other physical effects. It is helpful to remember that the body and mind affect and influence each other. This Thriving Together Series: Moving Toward Well-Being article includes practices that help release physical tension. They include going for a walk, stretching, yoga, and many other types of exercise.

You can reduce the likelihood of an amygdala hijack by trying to relax any areas that are tense or tight. Do so by visualizing the muscles releasing on the exhale, as you breathe. Another useful action is to notice your breath and take a series of long, slow, deep inhales with an even longer exhale.

When considering the how, what, where, when, and with whom you will have the conversation, keep in mind that both timing and process matter. Sometimes it may be better to not have the discussion, and in making that decision, you need to consider the potential consequence (e.g., resentment or unsolved issues). Think about the details carefully. You may want to practice talking it through with a trusted friend, family member, or colleague.

Here are additional tips:

  1. This is a two-way conversation, so knowing what you want to say is as important as truly listening to the other person. If your goal is to work it through with them, then let the other person know.
  2. Be solution-focused and remember the value of the relationship. Common goals and shared interests are powerful.
  3. Avoid blame and accusations, and use “I” statements instead of “you” statements.
  4. Think of it as a two-way learning conversation, and ask questions so you can understand the other person’s perspective.
  5. Sometimes making it an informal conversation – such as a chat over tea or coffee or a chat during a walk – can help make it feel less intense.

What is most important to remember is that difficult conversations become a bit easier when you break down the process, and when you take a mindful and clear approach to them. The goal should be for those involved to better understand each other while supporting each other’s well-being.

Additional Resources

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