How to Have Difficult Conversations During the Holidays and Beyond

Figuring out how to have difficult conversations while maintaining and even strengthening your relationships can be tricky. A useful skill called conversational receptiveness can help this holiday season.

By — on / Dealing with Difficult People

how to have difficult conversations

In the United States and many other places, people seem more divided than ever before. Disagreement on political issues is common, but often we can’t even seem to agree on basic facts. As families come together during the winter holidays or simply post-quarantine, many wonder how to have difficult conversations regarding hot-button issues while preserving their relationships. Recent research on conversational receptiveness by Michael Yeomans, Julia Minson, Hanne Collins, Frances Chen, and Francesca Gino offers strategies for having discussions that are less heated, more productive, and even more persuasive.

Strategies on How to Have Difficult Conversations

In their research, Yeomans and his colleagues aimed to determine the hallmarks of conversational receptiveness, which they define as “the use of language to communicate one’s willingness to thoughtfully engage with opposing views.” When people show receptiveness, they convey that they are truly interested in understanding and engaging with someone else’s perspective.

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This can be easier said than done, of course. To identify the features of conversational receptiveness, the team developed an algorithm that could sniff out receptive language like a bloodhound from thousands of lines of text. The algorithm produced a linguistic profile of receptiveness that all of us can use when handling difficult conversations, whether in the context of a difficult situation at work or in our personal life.

In particular, features of receptive speech emerged that can be useful when considering how to have difficult conversations:

  • Words of acknowledgment. The most prevalent means of signaling receptiveness involved acknowledging a conversational partner’s point of view—that is, using phrases such as “I hear where you’re coming from” or “It sounds like you’re saying that . . . ” Such language conveys that you are making a genuine effort to hear what the other person is trying to express. As a result, it heads off surface-level conflict and promotes deeper understanding when having difficult conversations.

  • Finding areas of agreement. When people disagree strongly on an issue, such as whether schools should close when Covid-19 rates are high in an area, they typically focus on trying to convince each other that they are right and the other person is wrong. It’s also one of the most common negotiation mistakes—and often leads to impasse and conflict. When you instead focus on where you agree, you can open up a more productive discussion. For example, you might say, “I know we both feel passionately about this issue because children’s welfare is so important to both of us.”

  • Positive emotional words. We better convey receptivity with positive emotional words, such as glad, happy, or relieved, than words that express negative emotions, such as disappointed, sad, or worried. So, when expressing your views during difficult conversations at work and at home, try framing them using positive rather than negative terms.

  • Hedging. When people express complete conviction in their beliefs, conversations go nowhere. When we instead express our views with humility, we encourage others to be more receptive to our views. You can also hedge using words such as somewhat or “maybe,” or phrases like “This is what I tend to think, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts.” And avoid explanatory words like because and therefore, which can seem authoritative and condescending.

Putting Conversational Receptiveness to Work

Next, Yeomans and colleagues tested whether using the receptive language that the algorithm identified has real benefits. They gave some study participants five minutes of training in using receptive language. These participants then wrote a response to an essay written by someone they disagreed with on a controversial issue, while participants in a control group wrote a response using their own natural conversational style.

Other participants who had opposing views on the same issue then responded to one of these essays. These participants were more likely to be persuaded to shift their beliefs when they read responses from those who had been trained in receptivity; they also preferred to work with these receptive partners in the future. The results suggest that displaying receptivity not only keeps conflicts from escalating but also can be an effective means of persuading others to come around to your point of view.

People often fear that appearing receptive to views they vehemently dislike would require them to compromise their beliefs and values. But receptivity simply requires a willingness to listen and try to understand. When displayed sincerely, this openness may be the best way to convince others that your perspective has value. Because of the powerful norm of reciprocity, when we display receptiveness, others will feel motivated to be receptive in return.

When considering how to have difficult conversations, the study results suggest, all of us can learn to be more receptive by making small changes in our self-expression—with potentially large benefits, including greater understanding, deeper connections, and perhaps more common ground. That’s something to keep in mind whether you’re at the negotiating table or the holiday table.

What other advice would you offer on how to have difficult conversations?

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