Difficult Conversations, Part 3: When Conversations Go Wrong

3 of 3 in a series

Last time we talked about how the simple (yet, not easy) act of deep listening can go a long way towards making difficult conversations more fruitful and less stressful. Unfortunately, though, even when we have the best intentions and use our best listening skills, the conversation can take a turn for the worst.

Imagine you’re at a barbecue, chatting with a group of people. The conversation starts out smoothly enough—a group of adults talking about the weather, holiday plans, the crazy rainstorm last night. Then the topic turns to food and one man, we’ll call him Tim, explains how he and his wife are struggling to get their kids to eat less junk food. 

“I can tell you are really frustrated your kids won’t eat anything healthy,” another man, we’ll call him Ben, says, paraphrasing Tim’s main point (Well done Ben! you say to yourself, having just read my last article on deep listening. Plus, he waited until Tim was done speaking– bonus points!)

Just as you are about to hold Ben up as a paragon of listening excellence, he continues: “I have lots of great strategies that are sure to entice your kids to ditch the meat and devour their veggies! They will feel so much healthier, And the planet will thank you too. Your love affair with meat is causing all kinds of environmental problems, you know. The world would be better off if we were all vegans.”

A look of disgust crosses Tim’s face. “Meat’s not unhealthy—and my family is not going to stop eating it. Just because you don’t eat meat doesn’t mean everyone wants to, or should be, vegan. Anyway let’s not argue, we’re here to have fun.”

But Ben doesn’t give up. “Look Tim, I can tell you value your health,” he goes on, ignoring the interesting shade of crimson creeping up Tim’s neck.  “Vegans have less disease, and generally live longer than meat eaters.“

“I’m pretty sure that’s not right,” Tim says. “Besides, you know people aren’t gonna stop eating meat, right? If I want to enjoy a burger now and then I will. I won’t tell you what to eat, so don’t tell me what to eat!” The red is up to Tim’s ears by now, his fists clenched at his side. 

“Well, what about the animals then?” Ben asks calmly, but firmly. “Didn’t you say earlier that your dog is a rescue? That shows you’re a caring guy! Well pigs and cows have feelings just like dogs. Maybe you don’t realize that every time you eat meat you are indulging in the needless suffering of innocent animals.”

“I eat grass fed beef so don’t go telling me I cause animal suffering.”

“Even grass fed cows suffer at slaughter time…”

“I don’t need this, I’m going to get a burger. Made with meat,” Tim says as he storms away.

The rest of the group looks on in disbelief: “Whoa! What just happened here?” 

Where did Ben go wrong?

  1. He didn’t pay attention to social cues and body language. Tim was becoming visibly upset. If Ben recognized this, it did not stop him from continuing to push. Forcing ideas, even if they are fact-based, on someone who is not receptive is going to cause them to dig in deeper on their convictions, and further escalate a heated situation. 
  1. He employed “shaming and blaming”. By telling Tim that his “love affair with meat” is causing environmental problems and animal suffering, Ben is playing the blame and shame game. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who is happy to be told they are causing another being to suffer. 
  1. Being dogmatic*: Ben is adamant that he is correct and it is Tim that must change.  He is so determined to convince Tim that he is right, that he is unwilling to see any reasonable points on Tim’s side. If Ben was willing to concede that Tim has some good points, Tim might be more open to seeing Ben’s side. 

How can Ben fix this conversation gone wrong?

  1. Get his ego out of the way. Before he makes amends, Ben shrugs off the need to be right. He realizes that winning this argument does not result in a prize, nor is it likely to gain respect or change the other person’s mind.
  1. Recognize his contribution to the argument, then apologize for his part. First, Ben concedes that he did not listen to Tim’s side because he was too busy rehearsing his own argument. He also admits he pushed too hard when Tim was showing discomfort. 
  1. Ask for a re-do. Even though Ben feels justified in everything he said, he really wants to make amends.  The best thing to say in this case is: “Could we rewind and start over?” Then actually do start over—on a completely different topic. 

Let’s revisit Ben and Tim, now that Ben has had a chance to put his ego—and desire to be right— aside and reflect on his part in the conversation. Ben notices Tim is manning the barbecue and walks over. 

“Hey man, do you have room for these?” Ben asks, holding out a plate with two black bean burgers.

Tim looks up from the barbecue, “Yeah, sure,” he says after a moment, taking the plate.  

Ben takes a deep breath: “So, I want to apologize for earlier. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I just feel so strongly about my beliefs, sometimes I come across as a bit pushy. I realize that not everyone thinks the way I do. Do you think we could rewind and start over?” Ben asks, holding out his hand.

Tim hesitates, then shakes Ben’s outstretched hand. “Yeah, ok. We can do that.” 

Tim and Ben may never be great friends, but chances are they will both be able to attend the next barbecue without resorting to fisticuffs.


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