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3 steps to having difficult — but necessary — conversations

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

What’s your elephant in the room?

Every group — whether it’s a family or a team in the workplace — has one: an uncomfortable, complicated or charged conversation that hasn’t happened but needs to.

Maybe it’s about salary, taking someone’s time or effort for granted, goals, lagging performance, or some other loaded topic. “I want you to think of a tough conversation that people around you need to have — there’s some issue that’s holding them back from accomplishing what they want to accomplish,” says Adar Cohen, a conflict resolution expert based in Illinois and cofounder of the Civic Leadership Foundation, in a TEDxKeene Talk. “I believe they might be one conversation away from accomplishing that thing but they’re not having it … or they’ve tried and it hasn’t gone well.”

It’s human nature to avoid difficult conversations, partly because they’re difficult and partly because we’re worried that having them could make things worse. In his work facilitating negotiations with people from all different kinds of organizations — including companies, political factions, law enforcement, hospitals, gangs — in the US, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, Cohen has seen all the reasons that keep us from saying anything. However, when we continue to dodge these conversations, he says, “frustration sets in, communication constricts, tensions rise, trust evaporates and collaboration is done.”

After you work up the will and courage to tackle your elephant, there are a few key steps you can take to ensure that your discussion will be productive — often in ways you can’t anticipate or imagine. Cohen has three rules to help you lead difficult conversations.

1. Move toward — not away from — the conflict.

In his TEDxKeene Talk, Cohen speaks about a gathering he oversaw at Chicago’s Cook County Jail, which has more than 6,500 inmates and is one of the largest jails in the US. Their goal was to discuss how to best support people upon their release from prison and help prevent them from re-entering the criminal justice system again. The group was tremendously varied — former gang members, business leaders, corrections officers, clergy, social workers, sheriff’s deputies, city officials — and also unaccustomed to collaborating with one another. The discussion began, and it was terrible. “Whatever I tried, nothing worked,” says Cohen. “The group wouldn’t sit next to each other, wouldn’t even look at each other … This was the toughest conversation I ever led.”

Cohen was desperate. At their first break, he recalls, ”I approached that corrections officer who hasn’t said a single word all morning, and I just go for it. I charge up to him and I say, ‘Hey buddy, what do I gotta do to get you to pipe down in there?’ … I moved toward the conflict. Miraculously, he doesn’t squish me. He actually laughs.” By acknowledging the awkwardness, he had created a moment, an opening, with one of the participants.

“Conflict is information, and handled well, conflict is opportunity,” says Cohen.

2. Act as if you don’t know anything about the situation, even if you do.

After he got the corrections officer to laugh, Cohen says, “I asked him, ‘What do people get wrong about what you do?’ Which is another way of asking, ‘How are you misunderstood?’ … And his face changes. He looks like a different person, and he says, ‘People think that I feel normal about this, keeping people in cages all day. There’s nothing normal about my job.’”

When the break ended, Cohen asked that same question to the corrections officer — but this time, in front of the entire group. The response to the officer’s frankness was electrifying. “Now others are ready to share and because I don’t know anything, I keep asking questions,” Cohen says. “One by one, they all have their chance to describe everything about their day-to-day, minute-to-minute work, which means everyone’s getting heard by everyone. My naive questions make it possible for them to hear one another.”

“Ask questions about people’s experiences, and listen to what they say,” explains Cohen. “important things will be said because you’re there listening and the better you listen, the better the people having the conversation will listen to each other.” When you speak, stick to sharing your own experiences — resist the urge to offer advice or commentary or to speak on behalf of other people. “Take the long way,” he says.

3. Keep quiet, especially in the beginning.

Silence can be challenging — most of us will jump in to fill in unpleasant gaps or lulls — but it can actually lead people to speak up, especially people who haven’t yet said anything. Learning to be comfortable with silence can prompt deeper, more meaningful interactions. Cohen says, “Some of the best breakthroughs I’ve seen in really difficult conversations have emerged out of a brief period of silence. Don’t rush in to rescue everyone from that awkward moment; it’s your job to show them that moment is okay.”

Cohen shares an anecdote from a conversation he led among people from opposing groups in Northern Ireland:

“In one of these meetings, we suddenly heard from a man who hadn’t spoken. He shared his experience as a newcomer to Belfast, standing on a bus, exhausted after work and suddenly being surrounded by a group of men. They came in really close, whispered horrible threats. They trapped him, and he explained how his heart pounded and he just gripped the railing of the bus and waited until it stopped and he could dash out. He had feared for his life that day, he told the group, and he had hoped that immigrating to Northern Ireland from Somalia would have been the end of having to fear for his life. The room felt totally quiet; everyone heard him — Protestants Catholics, suddenly it didn’t matter. ‘That’s unacceptable,’ the first said. ‘That’s not Belfast,’ said the second. ‘Not how we want it to be,’ said the third.”

In his work around the world, Cohen has seen that just one conversation can change lives: opening the door to a new way of looking at the world, to collaboration that previously seemed impossible, and to forgiveness, understanding and common ground. Any of us, he says, can change the world in this way. “Conversations create the future. Whether or not we have them and how we have them is up to us.”

Watch his TEDxKeene Talk here: