How to Confront Sensitive Issues Effectively
Confronting a colleague at work, conflict in relationships, arguments with family, tension amidst friends, the list goes on and on…
We’ve all been there. We need to bring up something important to somebody, but we’re at a loss of how to do it. The situation is volatile, and one wrong word could unleash a fury of shouting.
In our minds, we play out a dozen different ways we could communicate our thoughts, but in the end… We don’t.
We fear that things may turn ugly and choose silence over possible conflict. Perhaps we are scarred by old memories of being shouted at, hurt by people who were supposed to protect and love us.
We carry on with life and think that that’s the end of the conflict, but is it, really?
In our mind, we start to associate the person with negative sentiments, often wrongly, and either victimise ourself, or vilify the other person. What’s dangerous is that these stories we tell ourselves form our perception of reality. What may have started as a simple miscommunication may be magnified many times more in our head, so much so that we lose what we originally had — whether it’s a friendship with someone once important to us, or perhaps a common objective you could have achieved together.
In confronting sensitive issues effectively, it’s important to take these 3 steps:
- Manage Emotions Through Objective Interpretation
- Identify Shared Goals
- Create Safety
1. Manage Emotions Through Objective Interpretation
When we’re in the thick of an argument, it’s hard to remain void of emotions. Often, the emotions we feel are so quick to surface it’s almost an instinctive reaction. However, if we break it down, we have:
Stimulus -> Interpretation of Stimulus (Story) -> Feel (Emotions) -> Act
- Stimulus: Max just came out from your boss’ office. He walks up to you and says you produce incompetent work. His body language seems aggressive and he is slightly red in the face.
- Interpretation/story: Max is angry at me and is blaming me even though we worked on the project together. He looks down on me and probably told my boss that I am a weak link in the team. Surely I will lose my job because of him!
- Feel/emotions: What a prick. I would always protect my teammates, I wouldn’t throw them under the bus. Despicable!
- Act: Let me put him in his place!
If we want to be effective in handling sensitive issues, it’s important to be highly aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves. Catching our assumptions here at point 2 will affect how we feel and eventually how we act. We should be open-minded enough to know that one’s own interpretations may not necessarily be the only truth. Sometimes, if we give the other person the benefit of the doubt, we may find out that we had wrongly judged them.
Once we have managed our emotions by acknowledging there may be other possibilities of interpreting the given stimulus, we can move on to the next step.
2. Identifying Shared Goals
In conflict, we nitpick at issues of differences, rather than focus on areas of similarity. Oftentimes, people in conflict have similar goals, but may just have different idea of obtaining those goals. For example, a couple in conflict would want their relationship to become sweet again. Or colleagues would want their project to be successful and smooth-sailing.
Hence, try to identify similar goals and focus on your ultimate objective. Clear, intentional communication is key here. Try to encourage effective dialogue, repeating your shared goal if you have to. Don’t let emotions get in your way.
In order to encourage effective dialogue, we need to create safety well.
3. Create Safety
“If only it’s as easy as you make it seem”, you say.
Yes, maintaining effective conversations sensitively is not easy, especially when you cannot control how the other person will feel or think. However, helping the other person feel safe in sharing their feelings and thoughts would drastically increase the probability of dialogue.
Creating safety begins with agreeing on shared goals. To do that, use the STATE method:
- Share the facts. (Just facts, not your story yet)
- Tell your story. (You can include your assumptions here, and communicate that you may be wrong)
- Ask for their story. (Then listen attentively)
- Talk tentatively. (Identify areas of misunderstandings, and reflect that you have heard and understand their point-of-view)
- Encourage testing in working towards a solution. (Maintain in testing state as both sides try to work towards a win-win solution)
If at any point in the conversation hostility or silence breaks out, go back to creating safety via clarifying your intention to reach the shared goals, not to “win” the argument.
In conclusion, confronting sensitive issues effectively is never easy, but will definitely be worth it. I cannot emphasise enough on how important it is as a lifeskill.
Practise makes perfect!
Do leave a comment below on your latest attempt at creating dialogue, would love to discuss how you did it!
(P.S. Main points derived from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High)