Communication is not easy, especially when there is something difficult to say. Even if we are excellent communicators, we can all use a reminder now and again about how to have tough conversations with our bosses, co-workers, lovers, friends, and children. I selfishly want to share these tips for difficult conversations because they work equally well if you don’t agree with something that I’ve written and want to let me know.
In that selfish vein, a preface: if you don’t like something I wrote, please remember that I am an opinion column writer; paid to write my opinions, not yours. As long as I have an opinion, write it down coherently, and submit it on time, I have done my job. I do try to entertain, educate, and inspire, but my job is not to please everyone.
For years I had romantic partners who read my columns and tempered my words, suggesting more politically correct topics or phrases. The result was often wishy-washy. This led to a mentor of mine who told me to stop sitting on the fence. It brought back the very uncomfortable memory to me of doing a split leap on the balance beam in gymnastics when I was 12 and landing with one leg on each side of the beam. I did not want to sit painfully on a fence, nor be perceived as doing so.
Now, I write what I think, after a lot of research, and I do my best to go full-throttle. Nothing else feels authentic. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything I say, but I do expect people to respect my artform, and to treat me like a human being when commenting.
Seth Godin once wrote: “Be judged or be ignored.” If you want to judge, I encourage you to do so, but please communicate respectfully, focusing on facts, in a balanced manner, without personal attacks. More specifically here are six tips to make your difficult conversations, less difficult:
1) Attack the issues, not the person. No insults, nor name-calling. If you don’t like the way I look, I don’t need to hear about it. In fact, even if you like the way I look, I don’t need to hear about it. Sadly, I’m used to insults and comments about my appearance from a certain type of men, but it hurts even more coming from women. To the women out there, let’s be kind to one another, build each other up, and straighten each other’s crowns.
2) Focus on facts. Don’t make assumptions. What did I actually say? Don’t put words into my mouth. Don’t make assumptions about my level of research on a topic, nor about my level of education or intelligence. You will never know the amount of research that goes into each column. It is impossible to jam all of one’s research into the space given to write. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, I have a doctorate).
3) Don’t take things personally. Examine your feelings if you are getting defensive. Don’t blame the other person for your feelings. Me not agreeing with your opinion doesn’t mean that you are a lesser person. If you get super defensive about something I wrote, please check yourself and think about why, before you hurl vitriolic comments my way. Shakespeare’s: “I think the lady doth protest too much,” comes to mind when someone attacks me disrespectfully.
4) Take a balanced approach. Try and find one thing that we agree upon before launching into negatives. What’s that expression about catching more flies with honey? I don’t think I’m perfect, and sometimes I do get things wrong, but I am more than a sum of a pile of mistakes; my batting average is pretty decent.
5) Be respectful. Remember that I am a person, with feelings. There are nice ways to say something negative. Write to me like you would write to someone who you care about (like your mother, daughter, sister, partner).
6) You may not like the product, but respect the process. There are makers and takers in life. It is harder to be a maker. It is much easier to tear things down than to build them. No one wants to write the first draft, but lots of people are ready to criticize it. If you think you can do better, get writing, hone your craft, and submit it as a letter to the editor.
All of these bolded tips can improve any relationship’s communication, and will definitely help me to engage with you on the issues should you contact me. In case you are wondering, I reply to everyone who writes to me; regardless of their opinion of my work.
I am so thankful when anyone takes the time to write to me (though the compliments and constructive criticism are my favourite messages). Through these communications I have learned more about the other person and their views, and sometimes about myself. We may get closer on an issue, or we may not. We may eventually have to agree to disagree, but using the above ground rules for difficult conversations, we can do that kindly and respectfully.