Welcome back to the Journey Podcast! In this episode Terry and Jeff discuss how to handle difficult conversations. From learning how to approach the difficult conversation to what to say in the middle of the conversation, there is something for everyone to learn.
Transcription of the Podcast
Terry: This world would be a much better place if everyone offered and received unconditional love and acceptance. Unconditional, think of that word. It means there are no conditions where our love or acceptance would stop.
Jeff: We are back today with a another podcast talking with Terry. Hello Terry.
Jeff: Terry is a licensed counselor. She talks with people all day about tough, heavy topics. I can only imagine, person after person, heavy topic after heavy topic. I mean it’s got to get a little heavy doesn’t it?
Terry: It can sometimes.
Jeff: But you have to know how to come alongside people and work through those heavy topics.
Terry: Yeah and I think the conversation today I was hoping is that it’s not just for counselors to have to deal with heavy topics. Everybody seems to. A lot of what I see sometimes, I see in the office is people will come in and say, “We’ve got to go to Christmas and Uncle Joe is going to be there and he is going to talk about, I just know he’s going to talk about it and then everybody’s going to be angry,” and so these things happen. I mean, as we go into the holidays, this is going to be on the minds of a lot of people.
Jeff: So yeah, it’s great to actually have you in here, Terry and get you out of the counseling office because there’s so many of us that need to just relate to these heavy topics and how to handle those.
Jeff: So, yeah. So why is it so difficult to talk about things like politics and these kinds of subjects that are just tough with people that hold a different view than we hold?
Terry: Well, I think part of it is that whatever perspective we hold on a topic or issue, we’ve usually gotten from some specific vantage point. And we come to a conclusion in our own mind about whether something is right, wrong, good, bad and what should be done about it. At this point, once we’ve made that conclusion, we’ve kind of locked it in. What we what we have come to makes sense to us and from our worldview and how the world works.
Terry: When we meet someone with an opposite perspective, we’re left with some choices. Depending on the importance of the issue and how strongly we take a stand, we can listen to their rationale and maybe possibly accept their perspective as being right. We can agree to disagree and say, “No, this is my opinion. This is your position. I accept, kind of respectfully disagree,” or we can attempt to change their perspective to match our own by firing out all of our own rationale at us, which tends to be the perspective that, the direction most people go.
Jeff: Kind of like machine gun arguing right? It’s like shoot off these topics, shoot out these comments, shoot them out as fast as you can. If you shoot out with enough ideas fast enough, maybe you’ll win.
Terry: Well, I think it’s, yeah, it’s that feeling that “I have come to the most important decision on this and if everybody else knew the rationale that I came to, they would believe the same way I believe.” I think that’s the mindset that a lot of … At the heart of this. It’s also what leads to those toxic family feuds around the holidays.
Jeff: We did a podcast earlier that talked about just understanding that people are going to be different. We’re all different, we’re all made differently. But to look at those things that we have in common, those similarities, and that that really helps kick off these conversations, doesn’t it?
Terry: Well, I think it’s important to go back if you haven’t listened to the last podcast that we did on relating to people who are different from us. I think there’s a lot of good points in there that I don’t want to bring up here again, so if you get a chance to go back and listen to that one.
Jeff: So what can we do that will make it easier to relate to others who do hold different positions and values? Because that’s going to be a lot of people. We’re not all clones of each other. So when we decide, “Hey, it’s important to have a conversation,” which is probably a good point to decide, not at the holiday dinner with everybody around the table maybe to start that. So maybe you want to have coffee with the person and say, “Hey, let’s talk about this and such.” How do we do that then?
Terry: Well I think first of all we have to realize that we want to do it in such a way that we’re not setting off the danger signals in their heads. And when somebody comes at me or comes at you and says, “You’re wrong about this subject,” or at least has that, they may not say those actual words, but their mannerisms and their perspective, it’s like, “You need to look at this.” Anytime somebody uses the word need, you need to do something, we’re basically saying that they’re wrong. And that’s really likely to set off alarm signals in someone’s head because-
Jeff: So need. The word need you want to get out of the vocabulary for this kind of discussion.
Terry: Yeah. Because if you come up to somebody and say, “Hey, you need to look at it this way,” you’re going to set off their alarm signals. When those danger signals are activated, becoming defensive is an immediate response. It’s not something they necessarily feel like they choose. It just happens.
Jeff: Right, right. What else then is sort of a thing that is a … Because you’ve got to have this mindset. You’ve got to have this roadmap when you’re going into these conversations, right? So what’s the next thing that’s important?
Terry: I still want to go back to that part about the defensiveness because what happens when we get somebody defensive, when we say or do something that the other person is defensive about is logic and reasoning skills go out the window and our emotion’s running the show. Emotion is really the motion set of our brain is now responding to those those warning signals. At that point, the smartest next step is to just stop talking. Just to let that subject rest at that point until everybody is calmer and then come back to it if you feel like it’s safe. And then from that point on, I would say first of all, don’t argue. Arguing just sets off those alarm signals.
Jeff: Right. And that may involve just taking a pause. Hitting that pause button, stepping away from the conversation, is that correct?
Jeff: Because you don’t have to solve the world’s problems in one luncheon.
Terry: Right. Then when you come back together again, the first thing I would say is listen. And I guess when I-
Jeff: What did you say?
Terry: What did I say? Did you hear me? I said, “Listen.”
Jeff: Oh, listen. I gotcha.
Terry: And what I mean is really listen with curiosity and openness to try to understand what the other person is coming from. You want to really listen to their perspective. You want to listen to their heart. And that’s a really hard thing to do. If we’re busy in our own head thinking of the next thing we want to say or the next argument we want to say. It’s really, really important to try to listen without focusing because our brains can only do one thing at a time. They can either listen or they can focus on what’s in your head that you want to say next. They can’t do both.
Jeff: Well and it’s really easy for people like me who have a little bit of that high energy perspective who have some specific thoughts in their head to say, “Oh, I just really want to get this out. I really want to get this out.” And it’s hard. I mean it really is that, “Okay, take a breath and just understand that that other person has some thoughts they want to get out too.” And it really is some intentional discipline. I mean it’s almost a like athletics in a way. I mean, if you’re going to run a race, you don’t just absolutely run the race. You have to do some training. So this is really maybe a bit of a listening training in a way?
Terry: Absolutely. The more you can do to train yourself to listen the better. Even when you’re watching TV, if you’re all alone and you’re watching TV, just focus on your listening skills. What are they really saying? A lot of times we’re watching TV and we’re multitasking at the same time, but really listen to and try to hear the heart of the speaker if you can.
Jeff: So a question then, and again, not to pull this into the counseling office too much because we would love to with Journey, and I say this kiddingly but close down counseling offices. Because people are so healthy and the communication is so good, they don’t even need counselors.
Terry: Yeah, careful with that.
Jeff: I know. There’s other issues in people’s lives. We love counselors. But yeah, it’s just to do this in a way that is healthy and sort of consistent. There’s just really, again, it just goes back to being intentional about it, doesn’t it?
Terry: It really does. And I think what’s happening in our society is we’re losing our ability to listen with our hearts. We have so much noise out there. We have information available in so many different directions. Not even at our fingertips. We don’t even have to type any more to get information off the internet. All we have to do is say, “Hey, Siri or Alexa,” and we’re linked into this virtual world of so much information.
Jeff: So just real quick, of the people that come into your office, what percentage would you say are really listening to each other? They’re really sitting down. They’ve had good conversations. They’re walking in and they are good listeners.
Terry: Yeah, that would be pretty low. Of course, I think what it is is when I get couples who come in, by the time they make it to a counseling office, typically they have had years of arguing, yelling back and forth. And when you get into that pattern of talking over each other, yelling over each other what’s happening is neither one of you is listening and both of you are just trying really hard to be heard and understood and yet the other person’s not listening.
Terry: And so one of the first things I really do is I listen to people. I try to understand their perspective and their heart in the matter. And then I make sure the other person’s heard that. It makes a difference when you hear the heart of the other person instead of now arguing over the little things. I mean you can have people who come in and argue over who squeezes the toothpaste tube in the middle, who leaves their dirty socks on the floor, those kind of things. It’s really not about those things. It’s about what does that mean about them, and to them, and how does that make them feel?
Jeff: And it’s so important. I had a really, it was a tough conversation. I mean on the level of tough, I don’t think it was a 10 but it was probably a seven of a heavy sort of topic of conversation with somebody last week. And after we got done, their response that I got was, “Hey, just thanks for listening and hearing what I had to say.” And it was a two hour deal. I thought it’d be 20 minutes. We talked for two hours. So kind of moving along. So you said don’t argue, listen. Anything else there in terms of what we need to do then?
Terry: Yeah. I think the third thing would be to apologize. And that’s a hard thing to do in our society. People feel like apologizing is weak. If I apologize, that means I’ve done something wrong. Well, yeah, you have, sorry. Own your own mistakes. Recognize your view of the subject may not cover all possibilities and own your things. And if maybe you don’t feel like you … Maybe you had a right to be angry, apologize for the way you treated the other person when you were angry and just say, “I was angry but I shouldn’t have said these things or done these things.” Own your pieces of whatever it is.
Jeff: Right. Right. Well, and I think there, and then tell me if this is close. It seems like a lot of times apologizing is hard because it’s like, well, we don’t think … It’s like we ran the car into the garage door kind of level of a hurt. I mean, it could be simply, “Hey, I was watching the game. I was really focused. It was the last quarter. I was really focused on this and I just didn’t, I ignored my spouse,” or whatever it might be. The person thinks, “Hey, that’s just a little, little tiny thing, but-“
Terry: Are you talking from experience?
Jeff: But the thing is, it’s still important to apologize because that other person, even though it seemed like a little thing to the one person, it could have been a bigger thing to another person. So apologies don’t have to be for running cars into garages. It can be for little things but a true apology too. Right?
Terry: Sure. Well, and when we do those things and we also look back at what we talked about before about the worldviews and accepting things that are different from us, we can become better at showing unconditional love and acceptance. And I think those are key. That’s a key thing right there. Unconditional love and acceptance is something you don’t hear a lot about.
Jeff: Right. Right, exactly. And that’s really undergirding this whole thing. I mean that’s really at the core of all this. It’s like why do we even want to bother? Because this is tough. It’s a lot easier to stay different, to not handle the heavy topics. It’s just a lot easier to keep things shallow. So this really goes to the point of why would we want to do these kinds of things? And it’s really all about …
Terry: Well, I think it comes back to the fact that when you think about something like unconditional love and acceptance, those words, love and even acceptance, are both feeling words but they’re also action words. And so I think what happens a lot of times is we may love our spouse and we may have that kind of a feeling from, but are we showing love? Are we doing something to show that love to the other person? Unconditional love and acceptance starts from the mindset that the person you meet has intrinsic value and worth. By intrinsic, I mean just that there’s nothing they can do or say that will either make you love them or take that away. They’re person, the value.
Jeff: Right. But why is it so hard? You know, what gets in the way of just showing this unconditional love to people?
Terry: Well, I think one of the things that gets in the way, probably mostly is fears. We have fear of the unknown, fear of being seen as condoning what we have identified as being bad or wrong and work to get rid of in our own lives. Also a fear that maybe something that they’re doing or their lifestyle would rub off on us a little bit. Or on our kids.
Jeff: Right. Again, it’s that differences, it’s like “Ooh, they’re different.” Or they’re coming at this subject from a different perspective and yeah, so the fear thing. It seems like fear is one of those things that just kind of permeates a lot of what we do, isn’t it?
Terry: Oh, I think so. And a lot of people are … Fear is one of those words that not only affects us in a lot of different ways, but we deny it, we turn it away because we think of fear as weak and we don’t want to be weak. Fear can cause us to look at the other person in a certain way. And then we don’t want to feel weak, so we do something to compensate for it.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, and when you talked about apologizing, I think sometimes for me it’s always been like, “Well, if I apologize, yeah, I’m going to kind of be like, come across as weak or it’s just not going to be really that cool of a thing.” So yeah, I think again, it’s one of those things where just stepping back and going, “You know what? Yeah, I can see this wasn’t quite on track. I just need to say I’m sorry,” and just pressing through that fear, that concern like, “Oh, I’m going to seem like a dweeb because I messed up.”
Terry: Yeah. I think being aware that being honest about your, not weaknesses, being honest about your mistakes and being honest about who you are, what your growth areas are. I like that word better. But being honest about those things makes us human not weak.
Terry: And I think that being human like that makes us more approachable by other people or to other people. So in effect, I think what’s happening is by allowing ourselves to be human makes it easier for others to relate to us.
Jeff: So to wrap this up, why is all this important? Why is this stuff important?
Terry: Well, I think the short answer is because this world would be a much better place if everyone offered and received unconditional love and acceptance. Unconditional, think of that word. It means there are no conditions where our love or acceptance would stop. So for an example, I have three kids. They are not perfect. They have made mistakes. But there is nothing I could imagine them doing where I would no longer love them or accept them as my own child.
Terry: Longer answer, because when we’re coaching others, and if you go back to the coaching process, and this is one of the things that we talk about in the training for the coaches, when we’re coaching others, it’s important to see them as worthy of the same kind of unconditional regard. Let me try that sentence again.
Jeff: Take two. Hey, we can just do this.
Terry: When we’re coaching others, it’s important to see them as being worthy of the same kind of uncondition …
Jeff: See, it’s a tough word. It’s a tough word.
Terry: Sorry. I just got chocked up here. Try again. Take three. When we’re coaching others it’s important to see them as being worthy of the same kind of unconditional regard as we would want to be treated.
Jeff: Right. Right. Yeah, it is. This is just so important and so yeah, to wrap it up, this is what really coaching is about, and it’s one of those things where you just don’t hear this podcast and all of a sudden go out and go, “Okay, got it. I’m going to show unconditional love to people. I’m going to have those tough conversations. I’m going to listen better. I’m going to ask questions better. You know, I’m really going to learn how to apologize and boy, it’s just going to be like microwave instant kind of a thing.” That is not the case, correct? I mean, this takes practice.
Terry: It takes a lot of practice. And it means we’re not perfect. Practice means we’re not perfect. We’re not. The expectation is that as we practice, we’ll get better at this.
Jeff: So get out there folks, try this, understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint. That you will move forward. You’ll reach out to people. That you will feel like you’re getting stepped on, but that’s okay. Again, we love others, we move forward, we care for them. It’s not always easy. The coaching piece, Journey Coaching can help. We’re here to provide some supports and framework and you can find out more about all those kinds of things on the Journey website, journeycoaching.org. And again, just resources to help as we all move through life and as we all step out of our comfort zones and to try to love others and to help those conversations that will really help us to grow deeper. And yeah, it’s just some cool stuff. So thanks for being here Terry.
Terry: Well, thank you for asking me.
Jeff: Take care.
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