Communication is the glue that forms and sustains relationships. Communication allows us to address conflicts and engage in collaboration. Communication helps us to make connections and share understanding. Communication helps us to understand and resolve our most vexing problems. To say that communication is the “grease” that keeps our families, communities, and society functioning is not an exaggeration.
Yet, communication is not necessarily easy. Despite good intentions, our attempts to communicate can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Intended messages can be lost in emotion and assumptions. In fact, longstanding feuds have emerged and even wars have been fought because of poor communication.
While there are many factors that contribute to effective communication, it has one near universal enemy: fear. When we are fearful, we can find it difficult to listen well. We can make assumptions that interfere with understanding. We can jump to conclusions before the message is even fully delivered. Fear can lead us to plan unwarranted counter attacks and accusations and make conflict even worse.
While we may not always be able to eliminate the presence of fear in difficult conversations, there are steps we can take to account for its presence, lessen its impact, and increase the effectiveness of our communication. When we face the prospect of having an important, but potentially contentious conversation, we can use a four-step plan to reduce and counter the presence of fear.
First, we can recognize the presence of our fear. When we are fearful about what may lie ahead in a difficult conversation, we can become rigid in our approach and blaming in our message. Rather than planning arguments and counters to what we fear, we can start by reflecting on what is causing it. Once we understand why we are anxious we can ask ourselves questions such as, “What is the worst that can happen?” “What am I trying to accomplish?” And “How can I avoid having my fear get in the way?” Often simply recognizing our fear and its source can lessen our anxiety and reveal ways to avoid having it compromise our communication. Fear tends to lose its power when it is examined and measured.
Second, we can think about the conversation from the perspective of the other person or persons who will be involved in the conversation. What fears will they likely be experiencing? How might their fears interfere with their ability to listen and accept messages we want to communicate? When we gain an understanding of the perspective of others, we also can adjust our approach to take their fears into account and address them in our conversation.
Third, when we feel we have a reasonable grasp of our fears and the fears the other person might be experiencing, we can develop “talking points” to help us stay focused and not allow our anxiety and fear get in the way. Some people feel more comfortable with a full script for starting the conversation. However, we need to be careful not to have the conversation become stilted and sound as though it is a script. We might start the conversation by providing reassurance about our motivation and intention. For example, we might say, “I know that this is a difficult situation and I want to help.” “I care about you and our relationship and I want to find a way to resolve this issue without damaging our friendship/relationship.” And “I suspect that you may be feeling overwhelmed right now, but I am confident that we can find some ways to make this situation manageable.”
Fourth, as the conversation unfolds, we can listen for the presence of fears we had not anticipated. We need to be ready to provide reassurance and explore ways to avoid having these unanticipated fears get in the way of a productive exchange. Sometimes we may even need to ask for help from the other person to find a way to address their assumptions and perceptions. Importantly, our commitment to address the concerns of the other person can lead to greater shared commitment and courage to find solutions that otherwise would not have been possible.
Of course, difficult conversations may still require us to address uncomfortable and awkward subjects. However, unless we recognize the role and impact of fear, we may never be able to reach the level of communication necessary for shared understanding and resolution.