The Martial Art of Difficult Conversations

My wife Eleanor and I used to live in a small house in Princeton, New Jersey. One night we returned home to find a car parked in our single space driveway with no owner in sight. We were tired and had nowhere nearby to legally park our car. So we had the car towed, parked our car in its place, and went to sleep.

The next morning there was a loud knock on the door. Eleanor was the first to answer. She immediately regretted it. It was our next-door neighbor, we’ll call her Leslie, and she was mad. As soon as she saw Eleanor she burst forth with a barrage of angry words and accusations. I was in the back of the house and could hear her clearly.

It turns out the mystery car we had towed belonged to her son. Eleanor, usually calm and collected, began to defend herself against the bombardment of accusations, which only made Leslie angrier and louder. So they went at it, both arguing their points.

Meanwhile, I had a brief moment to consider the best way to rescue Eleanor. I had to diffuse Leslie’s anger, otherwise we’d never get anywhere. The only way to do that was to give Leslie the experience of being heard. Once she felt we understood her point of view and appreciated how angry she was, she’d calm down. Then we could talk.

I decided to do three things that, together, communicate listening:

  1. Ask questions. I would ask open ended, exploratory questions. Who, what, when, where, how, why, etc. Questions that would clarify what she was saying and feeling. Questions that would help me unpack the situation from her perspective. I would stay away from leading questions and statements that pretended to be questions but wouldn’t fool anyone, like “You don’t actually believe that, do you?”
  2. Actually listen. I would shut up and hear what she had to say. And I would avoid thinking about anything except what she was saying. I would also try to hear what she wasn’t saying but was implying, the desires, fears, and assumptions that were behind what she was saying.
  3. Repeat and summarize. I would recap what I heard, trying to use the same words she did. I would also summarize what I heard and check with her to see if I understood her correctly. If she told me I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t ask her to repeat herself because, well, she would and I’d hear the whole thing over again. What I really wanted to know is what I got wrong. So I’d ask her what I missed. Once she told me, I’d repeat that part again and ask her if I got it right this time.

Most importantly, I wouldn’t bother to defend our decision until her anger was diffused. And I picked a sign for myself: once she took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders, I’d make my point.

I felt as ready as I was going to be. My adrenaline was pumping as I walked to the doorway where they were standing yelling at each other. “Leslie,” I broke in, “Hi. You’re obviously really angry about something.” She saw a new victim and pounced. “Angry doesn’t even begin to describe it . . .” I listened. I asked questions. I repeated and summarized. Eventually, I felt like I really understood why she was so angry.

After about 15 minutes I said, ” So your son only visits once in a blue moon and you really want him to have a good experience when he’s with you. And then the people who you think are your good neighbors have his car towed. One more reason for him not to come home.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” she said, a little more softly. And then . . . nothing. She was silent. She had nothing left to say. I had understood the depth of her reaction. Her emotional transaction was complete. She felt heard.

At that point I had enough space in the conversation to tell her we were sorry. That because her son came so rarely we didn’t recognize his car. And since he didn’t leave a note on it, we had no way of knowing it was his. It was late — too late to go knocking on everyone’s doors just to see if the car might belong to them — and we needed to park. It was the best decision we could make at the time. Still, we were sorry to have towed her son’s car.

She softened more and thanked us for understanding. She suggested that she let us know when her son came home. And then she left . . . smiling.

The only reason I was effective in that situation is because I had a minute to think. But while I’m a big believer in pausing before responding, it’s hard to do in the blur of an attack. If I had answered the door instead of Eleanor, I would have reacted even more defensively than she had.

When people learn a martial art, they practice the same move endlessly until it becomes automatic and available when they are ambushed. I realized that day that I needed the conversational equivalent. So I resolved to make a change. I created my new knee-jerk reaction: Ask a question.

Whenever I’m surprised and I don’t know what to say, I now ask a question. Even if that question is: “Can you tell me more?” That gets the other person talking and in a difficult conversation, it’s always useful to let the other person go first. It reduces their defensiveness, you might learn something that could change your perspective or at least help you frame your perspective so they could hear it, and you’ll provide an example of good listening they might just follow.

That night we heard a knock on our door and we both jumped. “Your turn,” Eleanor said. It was Leslie again. She asked if we wanted to grab a bite to eat.

Startled by her gesture, I responded instinctively, “What did you have in mind?”