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I recently facilitated a wellness writing workshop from which I learned a valuable lesson about difficult conversations.
Wellness workshops, as I define them, are sessions in which we focus on the self with a goal of exploration, discovery, and personal growth. We read poems and quotes, talk about selected topics, and then experiment with various writing forms and techniques to tell our stories. We also share with one another. Through discussion, writing, and sharing, the workshop is meant to be safe and nurturing, a supportive environment that will foster even deeper learning as well as a caring community. Unlike creative writing workshops, there is no place for criticism or other harsh words in these workshops. One of my roles, as the facilitator, is to guide the participants gently through the process.
It quickly became clear to me in this particular workshop that two women each had a lot to share. It was a small group, so I gave them each the opportunity at the onset to get out some of their stories. But soon one of the women stood up and verbally attacked the other woman, accusing her of being unwilling to let others speak or share their thoughts. Tensions flared.
I spend a lot of time crafting dialogue scenes in my fiction, so you’d think I’d be able to master a situation like this. But, as they say, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. A couple of years ago I read a book called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. Some of the basic premises in the book were absolutely relevant to this workshop situation–and are relevant to many other conversations we all experience from time to time. Basically, conversations become difficult when:
- The participants each have a point they want to prove or make. In this case, each participant had a personal story she wanted to share. Whether or not we want to make a point, we certainly all like to share experiences. What we need to remember is how important it is to let others tell their stories too.
- Internal conversations and feelings of vulnerability crop up. Each of these women, I eventually learned, was seriously lacking in self-esteem, and my suspicion is that those questions of worthlessness began to bubble up when they couldn’t find a place for their voices. When tensions arise, we need to realize that everyone feels vulnerable at times.
- Stories collide. In this case, the women’s stories were literally colliding as both tried to talk at the same time. But stories can collide in other ways too: we might remember situations differently, or we might need to tell stories for different reasons, or we might have different personal values—and personal values are the underpinnings of all stories. When we see a collision about to take place, we can discuss what might be causing it and how the collision might be averted.
- Assumptions and blame take center stage. In this case, one woman assumed the other wasn’t interested in sharing the floor. She also seemed to assume she had the right to take over the meeting when it didn’t meet her needs or expectations. When we hear accusatory assertions, it’s time to stop everything and diffuse the tension.
A successful approach to handling a difficult conversation, according to the authors, involves:
- Beginning with an objective, external story that doesn’t relate to you or to the other people present. That way everyone begins on the same level playing field.
- Describing your goal for the conversation and then inviting their participation at the appropriate time. This establishes ground rules and expectations about how the conversation might go.
- Listening with authenticity and paraphrasing for clarity–but not by offering answers prematurely (or at all). Sometimes a quick lesson about how to listen is necessary, too.
- Acknowledging facts and feelings. None of us are robots, so the human factor—meaning the emotional factor–is both relevant and critical in all interactions.
I was able to diffuse the situation in my workshop before the next world war started. I calmly stated what I was observing and acknowledged each of their feelings. The end result was that the accusatory woman left the workshop dissatisfied, and I spent the next several minutes trying to calm down the woman who remained in the workshop, somewhat traumatized.
In hindsight I think I should have remembered one other thing the authors of Difficult Conversations wrote.
“In a difficult conversation your primary task is not to persuade, impress, trick, outwit, convert, or win over the other person. It is to express what you see and why you see it that way, how you feel, and maybe who you are.”
In the course of mediating the altercation between the two women, I allowed all focus to remain on them, even as I guided the matter to what was probably an inevitable conclusion. But in so doing, I became invisible. Maybe if I’d accepted myself as part of the problem and resolution, and if I’d reiterated the strength of my passion about wellness writing with them, they both would have been willing to stay there and listen to one another and work it out, and in so doing we all would have learned what we were meant to learn.