Mastering Difficult Conversations in Your Community

Whether it is in our professional or personal life, we are all bound to come upon difficult conversations that cannot or should not be avoided. From dealing with a controversial topic in your group to setting boundaries with your boss or client, these challenging communications can be nerve-racking if you are unprepared. These 5 steps can help ensure that you get your point across clearly and increase the likelihood of achieving a favorable outcome. 

#1 – Keep Your Goal In Mind

Before you start writing or responding verbally, establish your actual goal.  It could be just to get your point across or to achieve a certain outcome.  Let’s look at an example:

An active member of your community has become very vocal about not liking post-approval being turned on for members in your quickly growing group. They begin to comment on several posts asking admins why this is happening and accusing the admin team of censorship.  They are normally very engaged, well-liked by the other members, and bring value to your group.      

If you are like me, you may be tempted to say “my group, my rules” and tell them to get lost.   However, does doing that serve the goal of the conversation?  If the goal is to make the argument stop, lose an engaged member in the process, and possibly create further strife in the community by removing a beloved community member, then the answer is yes.   On the other hand, if your goal is to keep a beloved member and achieve harmony in the community, taking a step back to think about the goal (and the good of the community) before you act may be a better approach.  Approaching the conversation with your goal instead of your emotions in mind can help you keep a level head and get your point across clearly. 

But how? 

#2 – Be Prepared to Step Away

Very few things in the world of community management are true life or death emergencies.  That means, that in most cases, it is appropriate and even helpful to pause before responding.  But what do we do when we pause?  A study by David DeSteno suggests that practicing mindfulness is key to controlling emotions like anger that can lead to conflict. “Rather than trying to control an impulse that you have, which is stressful and requires effort, mindfulness decreases your ‘impellance’ or desire to cause harm in the first place,” he says. “That means you’re less in conflict with your motivation.” ( Being less in conflict with your motivation means having a better ability to focus on your goal and a solution.

This pause can be whatever length of time you need to regroup and be able to focus on your goal.  It can even be as quick as 30 seconds!  Calm has some mindfulness exercises that won’t interrupt your workflow. However, you don’t want to walk away or just leave someone on read for an extended period of time, so practice finding constructive ways to express that you need a break.  Next time, try one of these:

  • That is quite a bit to process, I am going to take a moment to think about that before I respond. 
  • I hear your concerns and I don’t have an answer for you right now.  I will get back to you (in a few minutes/in an hour/tomorrow/next week).
  • I really want to give this matter the attention it deserves.  Let me think about it and get back to you with a plan. 

OK, I have a goal and some ideas.  What’s next?

#3 – Respond Instead of React 

Once you are focused on your goal and ready to continue the conversation with a level head, you can respond instead of reacting. According to Psychology Today, “A reaction is instant. It’s driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind.” On the other hand, a response is “based on information from both the conscious mind and unconscious mind” and  “takes into consideration the well-being of not only you but those around you. It weighs the long-term effects and stays in line with your core values.”

Because a response is based on information, it requires listening and understanding the facts of the situation and only then moving forward with a response.  Make sure you:

  • Listen to the people involved and make them feel heard. 
  • Focus on the facts to understand what happened, but validate the feelings that come with them. 
  • Remember that you cannot control what anyone else does or says. 
  • Think about your audience and the impact that your words may have on them.  Regardless of your intent, if your impact is negative, your message will not be well received. (Stay tuned for a future blog I am planning on Intent vs. Impact. In the meantime, check out this Scientific Ameican article on the topic)

Be prepared to repeat this process, but don’t get stuck in it.  Sometimes, no matter how calm, patient, and communicative the parties are, they are not going to agree.  That is OK!

But, how do we move forward if we can’t agree?

#4 – Reaching an Understanding When You Can’t Agree 

Gandhi said, “Honest disagreement is is often a good sign of progress.”  The goal is not necessarily to have everyone agree, because that is quite often impossible.  However, we can focus on making sure everyone has a chance to speak, be heard, and feel understood.  A good tip is to say something like “Let me make sure I understand.  You are saying that when ______ happened you felt ________.”  

Once you feel like you have a good understanding of the other’s point of view, come up with a plan on how to move forward.  Asking what changes they would like to see is a good start.  Once you determine whether or not those are feasible, you can come up with a plan on what you can do differently in the future in order to move forward in a positive way.  This may look something like:

  • In the future, I can do  _________, instead of __________.
  • Moving forward I will make sure to ______________.
  • I am not able to do exactly that, but how about ____________.       

What if that is not enough?

#5 – Set Boundaries 

Think back to your original goal and to the fact that you cannot control anyone’s actions except your own.  Now, reframe the goal to find a way forward for yourself. According to Joaquín Selva, a behavioral neuroscience researcher, “Appropriate boundaries can look very different depending on the setting.”  Think about the specific situation and find an approach that focuses on what you can do to move forward in a way you are comfortable with.

Instead of: “You are going to have to stop leaving so many negative comments.” 
Try: “I understand that you are frustrated, but now that we have talked this through if you continue to leave negative comments on this topic, they will be removed.”

Instead of: “You can’t talk to me this way!”
Try: “I am not comfortable with the language you are using.  I can’t be part of this conversation if it continues.”

Instead of: “Leave me alone, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Try: “I feel like we have discussed this and gotten as far as we can with it.  I won’t be continuing with this conversation.  However, if you have other topics to discuss in the future, please reach out.”

Instead of: “Stop harassing me!”
Try: “I have laid out boundaries and you have not respected them.  If you choose to continue, I will have to mute/block/remove you from the group.”

The caveat here is that you have to be prepared to follow through.  Scratch that!  You owe it to yourself to follow through.  Early in my career, I felt bad deleting someone’s comment or removing them from a group.  Remember that if it comes to that and you have followed all the steps above, you have likely exhausted all the options available to you to make it work.  

While no system is foolproof, using this 5-step approach has saved me from headaches, heartaches, and a lot of frustration.  You may even find that pausing to listen helps you find new perspectives and growth while setting boundaries makes managing your community and your personal relationships less stressful!

I would love to know how this approach worked for you! Share your experience and any tips you have learned along the way in the comments.

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