Engaging in Tough Conversations

Engaging in Tough Conversations

Interpersonal communications expert Mike Bechtle shares his insights on conflict resolution.

Mike Bechtle is an interpersonal communications expert. His witty-titled books such as People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys and Dealing With the Elephant in the Room amuse as they capture your attention. Anyone who leads a small group knows that healthy communication is the bedrock of a healthy group; without it, the group falls apart. Just as a little rain must fall in everyone’s life, a little conflict must emerge in every group. Rather than flee the inevitable, Mike is a great counselor and coach for leaders who want to successfully navigate turbulent waters.

Mike, thanks for taking the time to be part of this conversation. How did communication and conflict resolution become a burning passion of yours?

Well, that’s easy. I was bad at it and wanted to get better. I was an introvert (and still am) and always felt intimidated in most conversations. I could always think of the perfect response to something, but it was about ten minutes after the conversation was over. I believed that if I was ever going to hold my own, I needed to become an extrovert—or at least act like one.

But that’s not who I was, and it never worked. I felt like a cheetah in a motivational seminar being told to “soar like an eagle.” Flying sounded great, but cheetahs are made for ground speed. I realized that the only way I could be an effective conversationalist was to learn how I was wired, then build on that. I needed to become the best “me” I could be.

In your book Dealing with the Elephant, you start out encouraging readers to do some preventative relationship work. I was struck but the 8-steps a typical couple journeys through. I think those 8-stages apply beyond romantic attachments and have implications for all sorts of relations. Can you unpack those 8-stages?

There seems to be a consistent pattern of how relationships develop. I’ve found eight stages we all go through. In the book, we talked about romantic connections, but as you said, it fits between any two people. It will look different in every relationship, but the stages are predictable.

First is attraction. Two people catch each other’s attention. Something about the way the other person looks, talks, or acts first gets us interested. “That’s someone I’d like to know,” we think.

Second is approach. That initial interest leads them to connect with each other. They start a conversation about something they’re both experiencing—the event, the weather, or some other common ground.

Third is admiration. They use that common ground to look for more common ground, seeing what else they might have in common. If they like the direction it’s going, they set up another time to connect.

Fourth is attention. They like being together, so they find ways to do it more often. They’re usually on their best behavior to impress each other, and a relationship grows.

Fifth is accommodation. They’re still enjoying the common ground they share. But over time, differences start to show up, and it might feel a little uncomfortable. But the relationship still has value, they work to find solutions.

Now, they often come to a fork in the road. Things might be a little rocky in the relationship and they have to make a choice. “Do I enjoy this relationship enough to work through the uncomfortable stuff, I do we back off?” Often, it’s when they start expressing different perspectives or opinions about things.

Sixth is anticipation. When they’ve decided to keep the relationship going, it’s enjoyable. They have little disagreements, but they work their way through them. The energy of the relationship gets them through those challenges. (By the way – this is when the “baby elephants” sneak in . . . those issues that are uncomfortable, and it’s easier to simply ignore them than be uncomfortable. But that means they don’t go away, and they grow over time.)

Seventh is apathy. The relationship is still good, but life gets busy. The pressures of work and life begin to take over, and they don’t hang out as often. Little disagreements keep happening, but there’s less energy to deal with them. Dealing with those tough issues becomes more challenging, and time pressures keep them from dealing with them. (The baby elephant has found his place and settled in.)

Eighth is arrangement. At this stage, relationships settle into one of two ways of communicating: they either talk about the tough issues, or they ignore them because they’re uncomfortable. The first category takes a lot of work because they know how it helps avoid bigger pain later. The second category is a lot easier, but those subtle irritations grow like the layers of an onion. Those layers protect their emotions, but it also keeps them from seeing the elephant.

I was amused by your opening quote, “When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him.” That leads to an obvious question, why do so many of us ignore, hide, or brush aside the elephant?

When the elephant first appears, it’s obvious and it smells and it doesn’t belong. It’s an issue that everybody knows is there, but it’s uncomfortable to talk about.

I’ve been in small groups where someone says something negative about a group member who’s not present, and it sucks the energy out of the room. Most people are thinking, “Whoa. Where did that come from? That was rude and unfair and inaccurate.” Everybody is uncomfortable, but nobody addresses it.

If we don’t talk about it, the elephant gets bigger and bigger until it takes over the building. Eventually, we have to handle it – but we can’t just usher it out the door. We’ll probably have to remove walls to get it out. That’s why identifying the issue as soon as it appears might feel awkward, but you can just shoo the elephant out the door before it grows.

It’s not appropriate to call someone out harshly, but everyone’s relieved when someone simply says, “Hmmm . . . that’s an interesting thought. It sounds like you’re feeling pretty strongly, and it would be a good situation to address with him in person. Let’s talk after the meeting to think of the best way to approach it, OK?” It’s not attacking the person, just pointing out the elephant when it’s little so it doesn’t grow.

So often we think conflict is a need to be right about an issue. However, you identify six needs we all have that seem to matter even more than being right. Can you explain that?

I witnessed a car accident when I was I was in high school. The police came and interviewed people on different sides of the intersection, including me. I told them exactly what happened. I wandered across the street and heard an older woman describing a totally different version to the officer.

I thought, “Why is she lying? I saw it happen!” But then I glanced back into the intersection and saw it from that side of the street; her perspective made complete sense.

Dr. Steven Covey used to say, “If I think I’m right, do I really want your opinion?” Most of us can identify with that. After all, what we see is obvious to us. But humility is where you’re willing to hear someone else’s perspective —not so see who’s right and who’s wrong, but to complete your perspective.

The six basic needs you mentioned are security, adventure, growth, acceptance, connection, and purpose. I won’t go into them in-depth, but they’re all basic human needs we have. If they’re not met, we’ll automatically look for ways to get them met. Everybody’s different, so they’ll play out in totally different ways – but the needs still exist. For example, the need for adventure is our catalyst for growth. Two people decide to join an African safari for adventure. But one is completely satisfied riding in the jeep, while the other wants to ride the giraffe.

Some people avoid conflict because they want others to like them. They become people-pleasers because their personal sense of worth comes from the opinions of others. If those basic needs aren’t being met, we avoid conflict so they’ll like us. But we’re no longer being real in the relationship; we’ve become a counterfeit.

I appreciated how you structured your book, Dealing with the Elephant. It was easy to read and full of incredibly practical tips. You identified six Tools we need when engaging in challenging conversations. I want you to hone in one tool that is in short supply, Respect. How is Respect a necessary Tool for dealing with potential conflict in a healthy way?

I heard respect described once as showing appreciation for the worth of someone. That’s a great definition because it focuses on the innate value of others, not their performance. It says, “You have value simply because you’re you.”

As I look at the events of the past year, it seems like that idea of respect is disappearing from our society. We used to have the ability to hold a different opinion from another person and still have a great relationship with them. Now, we’ve moved to equating a person’s opinions with who they are. If we don’t respect their opinions, we don’t respect them.

If I don’t respect you because of your perspective, there’s no chance for dialogue. When that happens, there’s no chance of dealing with conflict because we can’t talk about it—so there’s no resolution.

Respect is the foundation for conversation. Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He wasn’t kidding. It means treating them with deep respect because they bear the image of the creator, and that respect keeps us in dialogue when we disagree.

If someone shows disrespect for you, seeing them with respect allows you to see them with great value and treat them with genuine respect, no matter how they respond

Kindness is a Fruit of the Spirit, but in your work you point out that it’s also a skill a leader can develop. What does conflict look like when kindness is missing and what difference does it make when the leader leads with kindness? How can a leader develop kindness?

If kindness is missing during conflict, it looks like the evening news. The stories are filled with anger, violence, and heated rhetoric—but never kindness. Why? Because the people in those stories don’t respect each other. Simply stated, if I don’t respect you, there’s no way I want to treat you with kindness.

Kindness is the most powerful tool we have in disarming conflict. It takes people off guard because they’re not expecting it. When they’re spitting mad at you and you buy them coffee, it’s tough for them to keep their anger up and it de-escalates the emotion.

So, how can we develop the skill of kindness? By starting with respect. Work on genuinely respecting someone and kindness becomes a natural by-product. Kindness doesn’t minimize the issue; it just lubricates the relationship, so everything works better.

I find it interesting that when scripture talks about how God draws us to himself, it doesn’t talk about theology or his holiness or omniscience or constant watchfulness. What attracts us to him? It’s his kindness that leads us to repentance.

What role should technology play in tough conversations? Between phone, text, email, and social media the options are plentiful and commonly used. When should we and when should we not use technology?

I’ve heard a lot of Christians over the years talk about the evils of technology; how it’s replacing face-to-face conversation, how it becomes addictive, and how people get distracted from real relationships. They feel that if we got rid of technology, people would actually start talking to each other again and have real connections.

There’s a lot of truth there, but it’s one-sided. We’ve all been bumped by someone who was walking while texting, seen families at a restaurant on their phones instead of talking, and kids who lose track of time when they’re online. We all know from experience that something different happens when we’re in person that doesn’t happen through a screen, right?

So, it’s been easy to see technology as the enemy until the pandemic hit. Suddenly, nobody’s complaining about technology because it’s the only way they have to connect.

Here’s the thing, technology is designed to enhance communication, not to replace it.

I look at it pretty simply, knowing that there are no hard-and-fast rules. But in general, if I need to have a tough conversation with someone, I’m intentional about meeting them in person as much as possible, even if it means bringing chairs and sitting in a parking lot, socially distanced. I never want to have a disagreement in writing, because it’s missing the connection that happens when you’re in proximity with someone.

Here’s a simple approach:

  • If I need to have a tough conversation with someone, I do it privately and in-person with just them.
  • If I want to compliment them, I’ll do the same, but also use technology to get the word out as broadly as I can.

Last year was tumultuous, to say the least. It seemed that the big elephants showed up in herds: civil unrest, political tensions, and a worldwide pandemic. Let me pick just one to address, politics. Given the polarized nature of politics, how can a leader navigate this tricky issue in their small group when passions run hot?

When it comes to American politics, it’s not just elephants, it’s donkeys, too. This is what I’ve learned about navigating political conversations.

The main thing is recognizing that when you feel strongly about something, my logical explanation isn’t going to change your opinion. How many times have you seen a post on Facebook that went totally against your position with a careful explanation, and you thought, “Wow! I’m so glad I read those two paragraphs. Their logic makes perfect sense, and I realize that they’re right and I’m wrong. I’m convinced, and will now change my opinion.”?

It doesn’t happen. People express their opinions, and emotions escalate. That’s because there’s no conversation, just putting opinions out in a way that says, “I’m right and you’re crazy if you think otherwise.” Everybody is talking, but nobody is listening.

If the nature of your small groups involves a lot of discussion around political opinion, I’d start by having several sessions first around the biblical teaching around respect for others, seeing the value of others, teaching the skills of dialogue that give guidelines, and boundaries for genuine conversation to take place. I would teach on what power listening looks like, including the mindset, skillset, and toolset for world-class communication. Teach people how to communicate before getting into political conversations.

That’s actually why I wrote the book; to give people those skills and tools to do exactly that. Whether it’s my book or another, find an excellent resource and build sessions around the content. Once they’ve learned the skills, structure some dialogue in a small group around a simple political issue. The purpose, though, isn’t to focus on the issue, it’s to practice their new skills in a political conversation, then debrief on what worked, what didn’t, and what they’ll do going forward.

Once they have those skills and tools, they’ll be equipped to enter any political conversation with deep respect and kindness while dealing with the real issues at hand.

Under what circumstances should an elephant be ignored? Maybe I should ask, are there any circumstances when the wisest course of action is no action at all?

Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”

If there’s an elephant in my life or in my close relationships, I want to practice elephant prevention. I have a vested interest, and it impacts my life.

If someone else has an elephant in their life that doesn’t impact me, it’s not my job to fix it. It’s their job. The stronger our relationship is, the more reason I might have to say something—not to convince them that they’re wrong, but to care. The danger comes when I point out the elephants in another person’s life, but I ignore the ones that are in my own life.

If it’s an elephant in your own relationship, talk to the other person to see if it’s worth dealing with. It’s always appropriate to talk about any issue that concerns you since ignoring it could make it grow into a big issue. Ignore elephants only by design and intention, not because they’re uncomfortable.

Mike, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us! How can readers connect with you and learn more about your work?

It’s such a privilege to talk through these issues with you. Thanks for the opportunity! I can be reached at www.mikebechtle.com, where we talk about these kinds of things on a regular basis. My blog isn’t advice saying, “this is how you should do it.” It’s just fresh ideas around common issues that help us think differently.

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