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Have you ever been in a meeting where people were talking (and maybe even shouting), but no one was communicating? I recently sat through one of those . . . it was ninety minutes of sheer torture. Multiple people talking over each other, not listening to each other, and trying to one-up each other. I left that meeting exhausted, and with one thought running through my head: Tone matters.

We can say the right thing, but if our tone is shrill, argumentative, or of the in-your-face variety, communication suffers. A negative tone drowns out our words, no matter how valid they may be. We may be saying the right things, but more often than not, people pay more attention to our tone than anything else. Here’s a proverb that captures the importance of tone: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In other words, when it comes to difficult conversations, we need to choose both our words and tone carefully. First impressions can be lasting impressions. Harsh words cannot be retrieved, and despite attempts to repair their damage, the bad impression they leave can be long-term.

It’s impossible to detour around difficult conversations forever. One day, we’ll have to grow up and learn how to handle uncomfortable talkss with people. So when a difficult conversation is looming, how can we approach it in a way that increases our chances of success? Consider the following three ideas:

Idea 1: Curiosity vs. Blame

The urge to blame is as old as Adam and Eve. The problem is, blame usually gets in the way of understanding. We figure “I’m OK . . . they’re NOT. It’s their fault.” When it comes to difficult conversations, curiosity is a better strategy than blame. Being curious means we try to  understand what happened, why it happened, and how to fix it moving forward. Curiosity is open to the real possibility that we may have contributed to the problem being discussed. Curiosity breeds understanding. Blame breeds anger and defensiveness. So let’s try to approach difficult conversations with a learning perspective that acknowledges we probably don’t have all the facts.

Idea 2: Invitation vs. Persuasion

When our only goal in a difficult conversation is persuasion, we tend to not be concerned with the other person’s perspective. With persuasion, our primary goal is to get our point across and try to get the other party to see it our way. Invitation is a better idea. Invitation is a joint venture where we ask our counterpart to join us in a journey toward understanding. It means we let the other individual share what he knows, along with his perceptions and feelings. Invitation includes us sharing what we know, perceive, and feel. Invitation sets the stage for a better conversation.

Idea 3: Perception vs. Reality

When a person uses hurtful words, our first impression often is “He said that on purpose.” Experience teaches us perception is not always reality, especially when it comes to communication. How can we move away from perception and lean toward reality? We can start by telling ourselves, “maybe what Jim Bob said wasn’t on purpose.” Maybe JB had a tough day, and lashed out because we were the first person in his path. Moving away from perception and leaning toward reality is easier written than done for sure . . . but give it a try. Unless the person is a serial communication offender in your life, default to the idea “they didn’t do it on purpose.” After investigation, you may learn otherwise, but try to start with the idea they injured you unintentionally. This simple idea moves you closer to what’s really going on, and can help you better navigate a difficult conversation.

So when you find yourself facing a stressful conversation, resist blaming. Instead, use curiosity. Rather than focusing on persuasion first, invite the other person to join you in discovering what happened, why, and how to fix it. And in place of relying on perception, attempt to figure out reality.

These 3 steps won’t fix all your communication challenges, but they’ll get you started in a constructive direction.

I’m rooting and praying for you!

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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