Reality Check: Helpful and Unhelpful Conversations

People talk. We often take it for granted, but the fact that we are able to communicate really is one of the delights of being human. It enables us to learn, create, innovate, and express emotion. Our communication is not always perfect, of course. For example, it helps if we develop our listening skills as well as our talking skills. But in general, communication is a wonderful thing.
After some conversations, both people walk away satisfied. Some conversations are learning experiences; they bring clarity or uncover helpful information. Conversations can also bring people closer, by supporting, encouraging and helping each other.
Those are effective conversations, aren’t they? It’s a win-win when both people can move on with new understandings.
Then, there are those other conversations
—the ones where we walk away and ask ourselves, “Why did I do that?” Those are the conversations that didn’t make anything better; they only made things worse.
Yet, there can be times when we have an almost undeniable impulse to “clear the air” on some matter. Does that help or harm? Well, it depends, doesn’t it?
If both parties mutually want to clear the air, if you both enter the conversation with a wish to gain understanding, and if each has good will toward the other, then a “clearing the air” conversation may be an outstanding activity. It could help to strengthen the relationship and potentially prevent future misunderstandings.
On the other hand, if clearing the air means saying your piece, ignoring the other person’s input, and then walking away, is it worth it? Granted, you get the satisfaction of airing your dissatisfaction, but does it result in any positive change? Is the air that’s been cleared between the two of you? Or did it only clear your head?
Thus, I am cautious of “air-clearing” conversations. But there are times when we have a difficulty that we need to address. This might be a one-time conversation with a person we don’t know, such as someone in customer service, in health care, or in the workplace. Or this difficult but necessary conversation could be with someone we do know, perhaps even someone we know really well.
If you are initiating the conversation; then you have the benefit of being able to plan ahead. How well you plan can make all the difference as to whether the conversation is ultimately helpful or unhelpful.
As some of us have difficulty remembering things, I suggest writing a few points down before you start. One point to consider: “What do I want as a result of this conversation?” For example, if it’s a complaint, do I want a replacement product, an apology, money, service, what? It’s good to keep that in front of you, because when emotions are high, it’s surprisingly easy to forget the purpose of our conversation.
If you have facts related to the issue, such as names, dates, previous conversations, have those on hand as well. Even if you don’t need them during the conversation, going through the process of organizing can help you make a more coherent case.
Finally, remember that the other person is human. They have their own difficulties and pressures. While it may be true that they are deliberately trying to make your life miserable, it’s also possible that they are legitimately doing the best they can. Approaching the conversation from that perspective won’t hurt, and it might even help.
How do you handle your difficult conversations?

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