Are Your Conversations Becoming More Difficult?

Harsh words damage more than conversations.

Posted Apr 02, 2017

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Are you finding conversations increasingly more stressful?  If so, you are not alone.  National polls, such as that conducted by the Pew Research Center, have tracked the widening divide between groups holding opposing political views, as well as the increasing animosity between groups.  Division is neither new nor the result of current major political figures.  As reported by Pew, even before the last political campaign, 53% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents held mostly conservative values (compared with 31% in 2004); whereas, 60% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents held mostly liberal values (compared with 49% in 2004 and 30% in 1994).  Political scientists have documented that politicians have shown a steady and steep increase in polarization along party lines over the past 40 years.

The increasing polarization has been accompanied by greater negativity of each side toward the other, growing cynicism toward government, and stronger skepticism toward the media.  Conflicting political views have affected the quality of communication on non-political topics as well.  Friends and relatives who have disagreed, often vehemently, on political issues can find it difficult to shift back to pleasant banter on other topics. They might begin to associate the unpleasant feelings of tense or angry conversations with the people they’ve had them with. Concluding that it’s impossible to have a productive conversation with such people, they might avoid confrontations by limiting social interactions with those individuals.  Online, they might unfriend them or block their posts on social media sites.  Over time, unpleasant feelings accumulate until people become “former” friends or “estranged” relatives.

In challenging times, we need healthy social interactions and social support more than ever.  Sacrificing friends, relatives or colleagues over disagreeable conversations that have become unbearable will have negative impacts on us.  Distancing ourselves from others leads to greater risk for loneliness, anxiety, and depression.  We need stronger social cohesiveness to cope with the stresses of increasing work demands, financial pressures, exposure to disturbing news, and complicated social relationships.

What makes a conversation difficult?  Some topics are more difficult to discuss, because they are complex or controversial.  Others stir strong emotions or threaten deeply held beliefs.  Such complicated important matters are the very subjects that need to be discussed.  Dialogue can advance our understanding, not only of such issues, but also of the people who hold positions different from our own.  Without healthy discussion, differences of opinion remain in a stalemate or in conflict.

You can begin to reshape those conversations you consider to be difficult, distressing or disruptive.  By incorporating healthy strategies, you can protect relationships by keeping conversations constructive and keep you and those in your life from becoming difficult people.

Identify your assumptions about topics that result in stressful conversations and about the people with whom you disagree.  Do you assume motivations without evidence?  What are your own motives? 

Consider what you are trying to accomplish.  Are you more interested in winning an argument than in gaining new insights or understanding the issues from another’s point of view?  Winning a contentious debate might feel good in the moment, but it is worth it in the long run if you damage or destroy a relationship?  Remember that long-term gains might be worth the sacrifice of short-term losses.

Keep sight of productive objectives in your conversations.

  • Relationships benefit when you approach dialogue in the spirit of discovering creative resolutions or advancing understanding. 
  • Consider your priorities.  Is it more important to prove a point or to try to heal or preserve a relationship?
  • Are you more concerned about changing someone else’s opinion than about gaining insight into your own?
  • Are you really engaged in an open minded dialogue or are you venting your own frustrations or getting revenge for real or imagined hurts?

Conversations are becoming increasingly more difficult as people are engaging in more counterproductive behaviors.  Avoid the following common mistakes.

  • Don’t confuse the opinions or positions with the person.  It’s okay to like or love someone while disagreeing with some of their beliefs.  Parents don’t always like their teenager’s attitudes or behaviors, but they still love that child.  Keeping the lines of communication open is essential for a relationship to survive and grow, preserving hope for eventual good outcomes.
  • Don’t resort to accusations or personal attacks, offensive or demeaning language, or attempts to embarrass or humiliate the other.  What is to be gained by inflicting emotional harm on another?  Under repeated personal attacks, a person can internalize insults into a poor self-image and lack of confidence or harbor feelings of guilt, shame, or bitterness.  Such adverse effects can cause irreparable harm to relationships.
  • Don’t engage in deception, withholding pertinent information, or half-truths.  When someone discovers or suspects that another hasn’t been honest, trust deteriorates.  Authenticity is central to constructive communication.
  • Don’t escalate to extreme language and outrageous hypothetical examples.  Such rhetorical techniques can alienate another by conveying a lack of seriousness on your part.  They obscure the points you’re trying to make by being considered unrealistic.

Engender good will and more productive conversations by incorporating effective principles.

  • Remember that conversations are an important part of relationships.  Ultimately, the quality of a friendship, a romantic partnership, or family connection is more important than differences of opinion that are often soon forgotten.
  • Be aware of the possibility of sensitive experiences in the other’s life history.  To you an argument might be an interesting logical debate, but to the other it might awaken an old emotional hurt or inflame a deeply personal conflict.
  • Adopt the perspective of the other.  Empathy softens the tension, anger, and other negative emotions in difficult situations.
  • Be open to creative insights.  You can avoid misunderstandings by asking more questions.  Questions can uncover false assumptions and conclusions and minimize confusion that results when people use terms differently.
  • Be aware of the difference between evidence and anecdote.  While anecdotal examples can illustrate and clarify abstract ideas, they rarely, if ever, constitute evidence to prove an argument.
  • Be aware of the difference between logic and emotion.  Logical reasoning is effective in solving mathematical and scientific problems.  But many social and interpersonal dilemmas depend upon understanding emotions, values, and moral sensitivities.
  • Remember that conversations occur within a broader context.  Focus on behaviors that are more meaningful than words spoken thoughtlessly in anger or frustration.  Some people find it easier to show love in caring acts than in the right words.
  • Perhaps the most effective strategy in managing difficult conversations is maintaining a positive approach.  Begin with the long-range view of protecting and enriching relationships.  One day, looking back, you probably won’t remember what all the arguments were about.  Wouldn’t you rather reflect on a relationship that was enriched by surviving difficulties than on a history of conflict and emotional hurt?  Use positive language and make others feel respected and valued.  Kindness is often reciprocated, and when it isn’t, kindness is its own reward.

References

Barber, M., & McCarty, N.  (2015).  Cause and consequences of political polarization.  In Persily, N.  (Ed.),  Solutions to political polarization in America.  Cambridge University Press.

Batcho, K. I.  (2016).  Anticipatory nostalgia:  Missing the present before it’s gone.  Personality and Individual Differences, 98, 75-84.

Batcho, K. I.  (2016).  Missing the present before it’s gone.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201607/missing-the-present-its-gone

Batcho, K. I.  (2015).  Conflict and peace:  Lessons from childhood.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201512/conflict-and-peace-lessons-childhood

Gramlich, J.  (2016, November 7).  America’s political divisions in 5 charts.  Pew Research Center.  https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/07/americas-political-divisions-in-5-charts/

Shashkevich, A.  (2017).  Empathy, respect for one another critical to ease political polarization, Stanford sociologist says.  Stanford News.  http://news.stanford.edu/2017/01/20/empathy-respect-critical-ease-political-polarization-sociologist-says/