Keeping the Peace in Conversations That Make You Cringe

cringeworthy convos

Many can relate with the struggle of what to do when they show up at a dinner party and one of the guests is saying things that make them want to dart for the door or prepare for a boxing match. Conversations are getting trickier and trickier to navigate. Relationship differences can feel like deal breakers as differing values, beliefs and opinions clash.

From families to faith communities, to the water cooler to the playground, we are confronted with perspectives and actions that are jarring and sometimes downright scary to our own unique worldview. Keeping the peace and finding common ground can look like lost causes in many social circles these days. Hate and fear always divide and the world can get really small if you only associate with people who think exactly the way you do.

The art of conversation involves understanding emotions, perspective taking and curiosity. But when passions run high, conversation can disintegrate to the experience of a bulldozer leveling everything in its path. It’s easy to shrink and stay quiet for fear of rocking the boat. For others, it may feel like an exhausting crusade to try and wake up everyone around you to a certain perspective.

So, what do you do when you are confronted with someone who thinks differently than you?

Courageous conversations can build bridges, sharpen beliefs, heal deep wounds and even teach us new perspectives. Remember that even the most divisive dinner guest desires to be seen and understood. While you may not win people over to your perspective, trying the following tips may help you stay calm, grow in your own convictions and maybe even preserve or deepen a relationship.

1. Listen. 

Instead of immediately defending or attacking, take a deep breathe and assume the posture of listening. This is a powerful relationship builder in any circumstance. Listen for patterns, facts, connections to their personal story. Listen for points where you have common ground and for places you would like to inquire more. Often, not always, when people feel heard defenses go down, emotions regulate and a conversation can ensue. This is a gamble, but trust that no matter what happens you can feel good about offering the respect of listening, even if it is not returned.

Hate and fear always divide and the world can get really small if you only associate with people who think exactly the way you do.

2. Stay curious and move away from judgement.

Building on your listening skills is fueled by curiosity. Instead of getting defensive or attacking, ask questions like the following:

-Tell me more about why this is your view?

-How long have you held this belief?

-Help me understand how you reconcile these points…?

-What are you most worried about if ______ happens/changes/ does not change?

Instead of staying in judgement about the responses you receive, focus on how to build a relationship and see if that is even possible. Curiosity fuels respect and connection. It also checks judgement when it surfaces and helps you honor your own values about how you most desire to handle conflict and difficult situations.

peace keeping in hard convos

3. Do a U-turn.

When you hear things from your friends or colleagues which trigger immediate and intense flashes of emotion, it’s important to build on your listening and curiosity skills about yourself, too. Instead of being other-focused, look within to better understand your own reactivity about a situation. Usually important or sensitive life experiences, along with issues you deeply care about, are at the root of your reactivity. If you see any patterns or an increase in frequency of these charged responses, it may be helpful to seek some professional support while also re-evaluating aspects of your community.

4. Value the relationship over being right.

When a relationship is important to you, it is sometimes best to pass on winning an argument. Taking this perspective requires clarity of values, maturity and a lot of deep breathing. Always being right may not yield satisfaction but instead may pave a path of loneliness and frustration.

5. Take a time-out.

When passions run high, great conversations can sometimes lose focus and boundaries run amuck. Sometimes one of the best things to do is to table a conversation — especially when respect is not present and a hard conversation turns mean and abusive. Walking away is not a sign of weakness or intimidation but may just be the most respectful choice to make for all involved.

The art of a courageous conversation takes emotional intelligence and remembering a discussion is not about winning a debate, but about growing into more of the person you desire to be. You can’t change anyone but yourself; conflict shouldn’t result in everyone needing an emotional emergency room.

How do you handle conflict in conversations? What have you found helpful when emotions run high?

Images via Sara Forrest

Rebecca is a speaker, writer, consultant and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California. Her husband and two children reside in San Diego, where she founded Potentia Family Therapy, Inc.

1 COMMENT
  • Jess Wen September 13, 2016

    Thanks for your really insightful and helpful post – my temper does have a habit of getting carried away so those questions to ask the other person and stay curious will keep it grounded! On the other hand, I think that it is important to be able to stand your ground. Sometimes if you get too emotional and walk away, it can snowball so that next time you are too emotional you seem justified to walk away and slam the door, and the next time you get emotional you might walk away forever. There’s a fine balance to be struck between sorting out a problem and walking away from it.

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