Your neighbor is playing his guitar loudly. You want him to stop because your business report is due tomorrow. As you pace your living room, you think how loud the guitar is, feel angry the sound is disrupting your concentration, and don’t want to be that person who complains or make a fuss. Finally, you decide to knock on the door and politely ask him to turn it down…and an argument ensues.
How did you end up here?
When we run into conflict, we want to deliver a message to the other person. We often see other people as the cause of our problems. We rarely see our own contribution to any situation. The reason we do this is that we can only know our own point of view and cannot know how others see things.
According to Sheila Heen, co-author of Difficult Conversations, our communication breaks down because we have different perceptions, interpretations, and values.
Each difficult conversation you have, whether you’re asking a neighbor to be quiet, requesting a raise, or discussing a bad evaluation, is a mini-crisis in which you have to address three challenging questions: what happened, how do I feel about this, and what does this mean about me?
The trick to avoiding arguments and having better conversations is not just to find the answers to these three challenging questions for ourselves, but to also find the answers for the other person. This is why you must treat difficult conversations as learning opportunities.
The “what happened” question is focused on the facts of the situation, the intentions of the people involved, and who is to blame.
The difficulty with this question is we can clearly see our facts, intentions, and the person to blame (hint, the other person). In the situation with the guitar player, your facts might be the sound is loud, he’s playing during work hours, and you have a report due. So from your perspective, the guitar player is clearly to blame for stopping you concentrating on your work.
Or is he? You might not know the guitar player has an important charity gig to prepare for that night or he practices solely during work hours because he talked to all the neighbors in the apartment complex (before you moved in) and they said it was okay. From his point of view, he might wonder why you are in the apartment complex during his practice time.
How do I feel about this?
The feelings conversation is not just about what you feel but also if your feelings are justified. Should you be angry or hurt? Should you talk about your feelings? And when you have strong feelings it tends to cloud your judgment about the facts of the situation, creating what is known as confirmation bias, where we only find information that supports our point of view.
Going back to the issue with guitar sound levels. You feel angry at being disturbed. Maybe you feel frustrated with the report you have to turn in the next day. Perhaps you are even worried the report is not any good. You have all these feelings raging in you and only some of them are directly related to the loudness of the guitar.
The guitar player probably doesn’t know about your many feelings. He will probably be surprised by your anger. He may also be worried about doing a good job for the charity performance. This song could be an especially tricky piece to master and now he’s frustrated because you interrupted his concentration.
What does this mean about me?
The “me” question revolves around our own identity. What kind of person am I? Having a conflict also brings up issues from past interactions.
Maybe you had a college dorm mate who always played loud guitar when you were trying to study. And now you deem all guitars players as rude and inconsiderate. Maybe you consider yourself an easy going person and don’t want to be the mean neighbor telling people to shut up, just like that neighbor who told you to turn down your music when you were a kid.
Likewise, the guitar player may have his own identity conversation. He may see himself as a good guy because he always plays when no one is around. And because he is playing for a cancer cause he believes in, he feels his performance is important. So he will be confused when you paint him as a villain for playing in the afternoon.
Help me understand why?
Whenever there is a conflict, there is a lot going on with both people in terms of facts, feelings, and identity.
Simply put, when you have a difficult conversation, it is all about learning the other person’s perspective. When you have to ask for a raise, you can find out if it’s appropriate to ask for more money based on your performance and what your boss thinks? When you have a bad evaluation, you can ask questions about what the person means for a certain category of performance. This way you can learn the other person’s point of view and come to some sort of accommodation and agreement.
A good way to start any of these difficult conversations is to start with “Help me understand why…”
So when your neighbor is playing loud guitar, you can knock on the door and ask, “Please help me understand why you are playing guitar now?” You might just learn a little about your neighbor and your neighbor might learn a little about you.