Can a conflict coach from the world of industry teach us how to manage the difficult conversations in our family lives?

Nick Harding tries the advice at home

Several months ago, my wife and I sat down for a conversation that would change the course of our lives. That discussion about the problems in our marriage led to our eventual separation. The ripples that emanated from that single conversation, fuelled by tea and biscuits on a Saturday afternoon, will affect us and our two children for the rest of our lives.

Was I really fully prepared for that life-altering discourse? Probably not. And that in essence is one of the main problems facing 21st-century discussion.

Although we have more than 10,000 conversations each year, we’re not actually very good at talking to each other, and when it comes to those vital conversations – the discussions that take place at a junction in life and can lead to a fundamental change of direction – on the whole we are woefully ill-equipped.

In families, those ‘must-have’ conversations often have such major implications attached to them, either real or perceived, that we simply choose not to have them at all, electing instead to let issues and feelings fester over time to become so immutable that eventually a crisis point is reached, be it a blazing row or complete relationship breakdown. So how do we identify what constitutes a ‘vital conversation’, and how do we make those seemingly impossible conversations possible?

Enter Alec Grimsley, a leading expert in the art of difficult conversations and conflict resolution. His services have been used by more than 25 FTSE companies, he coaches NHS staff and corporate CEOs, and is a trained mediator who has written a book, Vital Conversations, which aims to educate us about the art of tackling life’s most tricky dialogues.

Easygoing and likeable, with a zen-like ability to rationalise emotive issues, it’s Alec’s voice you want in your head providing the inner dialogue when you are about to tell your meddling in-laws to butt out.

As he says: “People I coach report back that their lives have more conflict, because they are having the conversations they should have always had.”Without having been taught how to do it, “We either get angry and over-emotional, or go into a passive state and apologise for raising the issue. Either way, we end up with no closure.” According to Alec, five core ingredients make a normal conversation into what he defines as a ‘vital’ one.

“High stakes are involved, with either real or perceived consequences; there is uncertainty about where that conversation will lead; there is often historic baggage or bias surrounding the issue in question; there are opposing viewpoints about the subject for discussions; and there are powerful emotions in play,” he says. The consequences of not tackling vital conversations effectively are evident in the story he tells of one of his clients.

A mother who had relied on her motherin- law’s help and proximity during the early years of her first child’s life had become increasingly frustrated at the input she felt was becoming overbearing as the child got older. So when she and her husband were expecting their second child, they decided to use their planned move to a larger property as an escape route and started looking for houses 20 miles away. When they explained their plans to the mother-in-law, she proposed selling her own property, combining the resources and buying a place together so she could be a live-in grandparent and continue to contribute what she assumed was valuable help.

The young couple’s shock at the suggestion meant they did not give a firm response, which the mother-in-law interpreted as a vague yes. She put her house on the market and sold it two weeks later. The couple were horrified that their escape route had been hijacked, but neither could face the turmoil and guilt that a transparent ‘vital conversation’ might elicit. The living arrangement became concrete when they all moved to a new house together and, unsurprisingly, years of misery followed in which the younger woman became increasingly depressed and eventually snapped, unleashing years of pent-up frustration in a single row from which the relationship with her mother-in-law never recovered.

All the way through this domestic horror story, opportunities to have vital conversations were missed. “It’s a true story," acknowledges Alec. “And a very sad one.

After they moved, the mother-in-law’s health deteriorated and that made it even harder to tackle the issues. She died three years after the big row.

“In life, we get to the point where we say ‘This isn’t working for me’, whether that is a mum who is desperate to get more support from her partner or someone at work with an over-familiar boss. Whatever it is, it needs to be addressed. Feelings buried alive never die.”

So how do we go about having vital conversations?

Firstly you need to recognise there are no easy difficult conversations; then you need to prepare by acknowledging your emotions before the conversation. As Alec explains: “During a conversation our emotions cause physical reactions. If we are stressed and anxious our body will produce cortisone and adrenaline, which shuts down the parts of the brain that are better at having conversations. We become emotionally hijacked. “The trick is to accept that you are angry, rationalise why you are angry, and understand the story you have been telling yourself about the person you are to have the conversation with that is making you angry.

By doing this you get space around the anger. Observe anger, don’t be it.”

The crux of Alec’s ‘vital conversation’ methodology is the understanding that we build a story around the initial issues that have led to the point where a serious discussion is needed. For example a partner may be continually late, and over time we may interpret this to mean he or she no longer cares about the relationship, without considering that they may just hold different values to us about punctuality. Or a teenage daughter may smell of smoke. Her mother may interpret this to mean she has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is susceptible to drug use.

In psychology this is called the ladder or inference, as we progressively filter out information, assigning our own meaning to it.

Alec explains: “You go up a ladder, and by the time you reach the top you are in an emotional state where you can’t effectively test the assumption you have made with the person you have made it about. If it happens continually we get to the point where the story we have told ourselves, that our partner’s lateness means they no longer want to be in a relationship with us, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: we only look for the behaviour that reinforces that story. In the end we can’t see past the story.” Effective vital conversations can only take place once we’ve acknowledged that the issues we are discussing have been passed through this psychological prism. And once we acknowledge that the same process has taken place in the mind of the person we are conversing with, the subsequent conversation should be open and transparent. “Your goal should be to walk down the ladder, have the confidence to share your story and listen to their story.

The big switch is going from the viewpoint of ‘I am right and you are wrong’ to ‘This is how I see it, I wonder how the other person sees it’,” says Alec. The theory works whether the conversation is about an employee’s performance or a partner’s cleanliness. It can be applied to conversations with adults and children. A few days after meeting Alec, I apply his methods to an important conversation with my eight-yearold daughter about our new family situation.

There is no anxiety and a surprising mutual understanding and ease of exchange.

At a time when verbal communication is increasingly under siege from technology, intrinsic understanding of the mechanics of conversation is needed more than ever. As we increasingly hide behind text speak and emails, skills like those promoted by Alec are in danger of being seen as irrelevant. As Alec says: “There is a huge amount of stress and suffering because we don’t understand the basics of honest, authentic communication.”

STAGES OF A VITAL CONVERSATION

* First define the issue – what you believe to be at stake and the consequences. Express motivation for finding a positive way forward, and invite the other person to respond.

* Explore both stories – increase mutual understanding by exploring how you both feel, and how you view the key issues Discuss any outside influences.

* Identify individual and shared interests – discuss both parties’ hopes and fears and the underlying needs that they are hoping to resolve by the end of the conversation.

* Generate options – brainstorm ways forward that may generate a range of options that will meet both parties’ interests.

* Agree on specific next steps. If you don’t end the conversation with a clear, mutual understanding of agreements and proposed actions, you invite the possibility of future misunderstanding.

‘Vital Conversations’ (Barnes Holland, £12.99) is available now. For details visit: www.alecgrimsley.co.uk

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