By Taylor Paschal, LMSW
It is easy to look back and remember major stressful situations. This year, particularly, there were so many people feeling anxious or weary of what the months to come might bring. For some of us, the new year also brought hard conversations during parties or family gatherings. We found ourselves walking on eggshells, hoping and praying that controversial topics didn’t arise for fear of what the conversation might have turned into.
As a therapist, I can’t help but notice that theme in our society today – the fear of hard conversations. Why do we fear the opportunity to engage with an individual that has a different point of view from our own? Is it because we fear being wrong or looking uninformed? Maybe it’s the desire to avoid confrontation and what the aftermath could be for the relationship. Or maybe we see the ugliness that comes out of such discussions online, and we’d just rather avoid them in person. Regardless of why it’s worth exploring why we leave difficult topics left unsaid.
In therapy, effective communication is often a theme of sessions. Focusing on strategies for improving conflict resolution or navigating challenging interactions are pivotal. For example, it’s challenging to learn to listen with the purpose of understanding rather than to reply. Allowing someone to feel heard, even when disagreements occur, will often prevent the interaction from becoming negative. Effective listening can go a long way when attempting to soften a challenging interaction. Listening helps us stay in the moment and regulate our emotions when we’re navigating conflict.
In addition to listening, it can be extremely helpful to pay attention to our nonverbal cues when communicating. Often, our nonverbals speak louder than the words themselves. Nonverbal communication includes physical behavior, expressions, and the mannerisms utilized when communicating. To be fair, these are often done instinctively rather than consciously, but nonetheless, play a large role in the success of the conversation. Taking the time to invest in developing awareness of body language and tone of voice can have a profound impact on how we communicate.
Using myself as an example, the ability to regulate and control my body language directly impacts the effectiveness of the therapy I provide to clients. In most cases, when an individual’s emotion takes over the conversation, the interaction can quickly feel very personal. When an individual is vulnerable by sharing something personal, they could be hypersensitive to the reaction. Thus, during times of high emotions or sensitivity with clients, I utilize mindfulness to be aware of what my nonverbals may be saying. A few ways this is done is through a calm soothing tone, providing caring gestures, maintaining eye contact, and controlling the level of my voice.
In our culture today, communication seems to become a battle easily. But there is a way to disagree respectfully. So often, we feel the need to continue arguing over a difference of opinion. It can be challenging, but intentionally viewing the conversation as an exchange of ideas can be helpful. Focusing on the good, avoiding it becoming personal, and eliminating the word “but” can be helpful when trying to disagree respectfully. Staying calm and regulating emotions allows both parties to feel comfortable expressing themselves effectively in challenging situations. Ultimately though, at some point, the time comes to just move on. It is ok to leave our argument on the table and decide to take the interaction in a more positive direction or walk away. The option of agreeing to disagree to achieve a resolution is always available to us.
Effective communication, especially when it comes to conflict resolution, is quite an art. Developing more effective communication skills does take intentionality, but doesn’t have to be strenuous. Learning how to communicate more effectively allows for self-expression that benefits various aspects of an individual’s life. Think about all of our personal and professional relationships which could be improved through stronger, more mindful communication skills. Maybe, next holiday season won’t be so scary.