How do you start a sensitive conversation?
By Dr. Susan Heitler
May 2, 2017
How do you start talking about the Elephant in the room, about the sensitive issue that you don’t want to discuss for fear that you’ll fight about it — and at the same that is a very real problem?
Sentence-starters, that is, phrases at the beginning of a sentence, have major impact on whether a conversation will flow in a collaborative mode or will turn adversarial. When initial words in a sentence sound safe, listeners open their ears. If the sentence starter triggers a threat alarm, ears close.
Use the following six safe starter phrases if:
- The topic is sensitive or controversial.
- You feel anxious about bringing up a subject.
- There’s been prior tension on the issue, so you feel at risk for an argument.
- A discussion has begun to slip into adversarial mode.
Note that the first four sentence starters below initiate talking. The fifth starter initiates a listening response that digests what was heard. The sixth circles you back and re-launches information-sharing, that is, talking.
I feel/felt _______ (a one-word feeling) when/that ________ (what it’s about).
Here is what this could look like:
Justin: I felt disappointed last night. The movie has received great reviews and yet I felt bored during almost the whole thing.
Feelings are usually expressed in one word: sad, confused, alarmed, etc. “I feel that ______,” by contrast, would express a thought, not a feeling, and generally will not suffice.
Tim: I feel that the movie was disappointing. I felt that they could have made the plot more interesting.
Expressing feelings enhances closeness between people. Be careful, however, which feelings words you choose. “I feel uncomfortable” is significantly more likely to be received with compassionate listening than “I feel mad.” Vulnerable feelings like confused, anxious, concerned, disappointed, or sad will be received empathically and accepted more easily than anger words like mad or annoyed. Pausing to choose a word to express your distress that does not come from the anger family can have positive payoffs.
To clarify the situation associated with your feeling, add a when you. The when you (or when I, when we, when they) can be added at either the beginning or the end of the sentence.
Justin: I felt disappointed when you said you’d be home at 6:30 and then came in the door at 7:00.
My concern is/was ______________________________________.
Justin: My concern was that I had prepared a surprise gourmet meal for you.
Verbalizing your concerns is essential to help the other person understand your situation. Expressing concerns is also a key to finding win-win solutions.
I would like to ____________________________________________.
Justin: I would like to enjoy our dinner now, before it’s totally overcooked. Then later, after I’m not so hungry that I might bite your head off, I’d like to talk about what happened with your being so late.
Remember to avoid “I would like you to …” Telling others what to do is a losing strategy, likely to engender resentment. It sounds controlling, not cooperative. Which sounds better to you? “I would like you to come home at the time you tell me,” or “I would like to figure out a better system for communicating about dinner times.”
How or what do you…?
The fourth starter, a question word, invites others to share their perspectives. Symmetry is vital in sensitive conversations.
Justin: How do you feel about talking now that we’ve finished eating?
The question-starter words how and what invite a broad range of possible answers. Journalists refer to questions that begin with these words as open-ended questions. By contrast,
- “Are you…?”
- “Did you…?”
- “Have you…?”
- “Do you…?”
invite limited Yes-No answers.
Yes. I agree (love, appreciate, can see, would like to, etc.) that __________.
Starting with Yes establishes that you are collaborative. Yes conveys that you are sitting on the same side of the table, together, against the problem. For uncomfortable or controversial topics, automatically starting with yes also buys you time to clarify what you can agree with in what you heard.
Judy: Yes, I’d like to talk now. And, I want to start by telling you that I totally sympathize with what you said before, that my coming home really late for dinner was difficult for you.
Reiterating what makes sense to you about what you heard clarifies which elements you have taken into your information base. It clarifies that you are taking seriously what the other person has said.
Equally helpful, digesting aloud what you have heard may clarify the opposite — that you misunderstood what someone was trying to say. Misunderstandings can be cleared up quickly this way and easily corrected with further information-sharing.
Judy: I can understand if you were mad at me.
Justin: I wasn’t mad. I was concerned. I was worried for my dinner, and also concerned that maybe something bad had happened to you.
Avoid generalities like “I agree with what you said.” Generalities sound patronizing. They often convey that you in fact did not really digest what you claim to have heard. By contrast, augmenting with additional information related to what you have heard adds even more to the collaborative tenor of the dialogue.
Judy: Yes, I can see that you would have been concerned because I usually get home when I say I’ll be there. I was watching the clock in my car and feeling increasingly frustrated.
I call these agree-and-add listening responses Digestive Listening because they indicate that you are truly thinking about the information that has been given to you. You are digesting the data to enter it into your information pool much as digesting food involves chewing and swallowing.
And, or and at the same time (love, appreciate, can see, would like to, etc.) _________________.
Judy: And (#6) at the same time, I was feeling (#1) desperately hungry.
Justin: (#5) Yes, I can believe that you were very hungry, given that we usually eat at 6:00. What (#4) happened that you were so late?
Judy: There was a huge accident on the highway. The traffic was stuck for so long that people got out of their cards and stood around talking. I tried to phone you and there was no answer. I wonder if your cell phone was in another room.
Beware: If instead of and or better yet and at the same time you use the linking word but, you will inadvertently delete the prior point that the two of you had just agreed upon. In addition, but could convert the dialogue immediately into adversarial mode. Use and or and at the same time to keep both viewpoints on the data table.
The 6 Safe Sentence Starters create and sustain additive dialogue. Each of you safely adds data points, together creating together a larger picture with new and mutual understandings.
The six sentence starters above will feel increasingly natural if you practice them. Try the following exercise.
Pick a friend or relative to practice with. Pick a topic. Discuss it using the starter phrases. Here are some tips as you proceed.
- Keep the discussion an interactive dialogue of short chunks, each three sentences or less, not sequential monologues.
- Follow the sentence-starter sequence exactly at first; then get more flexible.
- Take turns calling out the number of a starter phrase for the other person to give a sentence. Or call out your own numbers before you start each contribution.
- Memorize the starters so that you have them when you need them.
- Lastly, try using the starter phrases on a controversial topic, like politics, or on a sensitive personal issue.
This was excerpted from Dr. Susan Heitler’s book, Prescriptions Without Pills, 2016.