People in conversation

Thinking First: Preparing for the Difficult Conversation

Kirk Livingston

You’ve been here: You arrive at your aunt’s house and make small talk. Then — in a flash — you realize: What can I safely say to my brother-in-law? What can I say that won’t cause him — or me — to blow?

The stakes are higher than ever for ordinary conversation: we don’t know who is in our tribe or which news (fake or otherwise) they have given authority to. You can keep conversation polite and abstract, of course, and talk about the weather or football. But sometimes you really want to say the things that are on your mind. Because these things are keeping you up at night with worry. Plus, you want to talk about important stuff with your important people.

There is a way to unburden your mind and have a conversation—and even to reconnect with your brother-in-law. The way just needs a bit of patience and a bit preparation.

In the Essential Partners Virtual Workshop on Dialogue, practitioner Bob Stains lays out a plan of preparation for such a conversation. A first step is to realize that when we reach for our slogans and stereotypes, we arm ourselves for battle. It’s a rhetorical rush for the win,a blunt force meant to put people in their place. Arming ourselves also protects us from deeply thinking through our own reactions and responses. Reaching for a ready-made slogan or stereotype has been our way of identifying with our tribe. But slogans and stereotypes are not useful for reaching across to someone from a different tribe.

Pre-work is all about reflection. Ask yourself: what don’t you understand about your brother-in-law’s position? What questions do you have about his position --questions you’ve always wanted to ask? What feelings of care can you muster toward your brother-in-law? How can you bring that sense of care in such a conversation?

Consider finding another way into your conversation. Rather than a blanket statement that lumps all people together, is there a vulnerable response you can share? Some hidden inner reaction to current events that shows what you don’t understand and that you are, perhaps, just a bit frightened by what you see.

Think about timing. Is this a conversation for everyone at the table? Or is this a conversation for after dinner, when you and your brother-in-law are sitting before the fire with a snifter of brandy? That may be just the place — when just the two of you are talking quietly. That may be just the time to talk about the stuff that matters to both of you. And perhaps to reconnect and remember what you appreciated about him.

Let’s start this year on the right foot.


Kirk Livingston is president of Livingston Communication, Inc., an adjunct at the University of Saint Thomas, and author of ListenTalk: is Conversation an Act of God (iUniverse, 2015). Kirk lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.