Posted by Meg Soper, 02-11-2014

Have you ever initiated a conversation and then watched it stray off course? You blurt out something and then wish a suction device could kick in and hoover back the offending words … let you start all over?

We are all familiar with conversation trigger phrases like ‘You always…’ or ‘You never…’ or my personal favorite ‘Will you just relax!’ Those words can derail a conversation in a hurry.

Have you ever had that helpless feeling as an adrenalin surge robs you of rationality and your emotions spin out like a donkey on a skating rink? Your mind races for what to say next, making it all but impossible to consider what the other person is attempting to convey? Chances are you won’t even remember why you started the conversation – which is now fast becoming an argument! This is what happens when we feel threatened or face something unpleasant – the reptilian part of our brain kicks in and we secrete hormones that trigger fear and aggression – not exactly conducive to a productive conversation.

The problem is that once the words leave your lips … they are officially out there. And, instead of advancing understanding, ill-chosen words may lead you on a conversational hell ride that will hurt rather than help important relationships – whether with family, friends or co-workers.

Wouldn’t it be better to send all those destructive phrases and unproductive thought patterns to the conversational recycle bin and replace them with new conversation strategies that will prove constructive not destructive?

Conversations are so commonplace that it is easy to forget the power they carry. They are at the heart of all relationships – whether as individuals or society at large. Conversations provide direction, inspiration, and understanding. They can also erode self-worth, sap our energy and spark divorce proceedings.

Given the important role conversations play in our lives, might we be better off paying more attention to how we have them? One thing is for sure: every conversation is taking us somewhere. Do you know where your conversations are taking you?

When you think about it having any conversation is a bit like driving someplace you have never been. Your options are to just ‘wing it’ in the spirit of the old adage that says ‘Half the fun is getting there!’ And while it may be more exciting to take the route with the steep hills, sharp corners and hidden intersections chances are that you may get lost, run out of gas and spend time in places where you don’t want to be. Wouldn’t it be better to have the route and the destination more clearly in mind at the start of the conversation – be it the road to greater understanding, reconciling differences, or a sparking a change in someone’s behavior? It all comes down to choices about how you listen and the words you use.

It sounds easy but really it is a constant challenge. For the first few years of our marriage our conversations took us careening down a lot of roads that we should have avoided. We each wanted to end up in the same place (having kids, living close to friends and family, building our careers) but we didn’t do well talking through how we were going to get there. All too often our conversations would lead to another spectacular crash and burn, as predictable as watching a rerun of Groundhog Day.

No one wants to take the conversational Highway to Hell. So what strategies can we employ at work and at home to prevent misunderstanding, diffuse conflict, create understanding and ultimately improve relationships? Here are a few ideas:

Listen with H E A R T.

Hang Fire…don’t rush a response. Avoid the distraction of figuring out what you are going to say next while the other person is talking.

Empathize. Be careful not to let emotions rule how you act or how you choose your words. Suspend judgment as you seek to understand the other person’s point of view.

Ask Questions to Clarify. Allow the person to speak without interruption so you can ask better questions.

Rephrase. Use your own words to paraphrase what you have heard in order to get absolute clarity about what the other person is feeling.

Time. Take time in responding. Take some deep breaths or count to 5. Give yourself time to think and don’t be afraid of a silent moment before you speak.

Tough conversations are inevitable. We can choose to avoid them but the issues will remain. Instead of running the other way, we can use these strategies to give us the resolve and confidence we need to have the conversations that will move us forward to a better place. Acceptance is about becoming more open and receptive to what others have to say. We can be less reactive and listen with our HEART.

About Meg Soper

Meg Soper is a leading motivational humorist for organizations in North America. Her unique perspective combines the insights and experiences of her last thirty years spent as a Registered Nurse, stand-up comedian, and ultimately a motivational speaker. Meg has co-authored two books and appeared on the CBC Television network, Women’s Television network, and Prime TV as well as on radio and at comedy festivals.