the conversation that can save any conflict

13th July 2020

During Lockdown I’ve noticed how the same kinds of irritations and familiar arguments were springing up in our family.

The inability to make progress on a disagreement, can a massive barrier for most of us when it comes to difficult conversations.

Maybe it’s discussing education options for your kid because you can’t agree with your partner, on what school is best (single-sex was the making of them!) so the conversation always ends the same way; with your concerns feeling unheard and your partner feeling judged.

Maybe it’s a team member who takes any feedback as criticism, so every conversation feels like you walking on eggshells to avoid them getting super-defensive. In those sorts of situations, it seems like you just can’t win.

If every time you try and make progress you go around in circles, you’ll feel increasingly frustrated and dejected.

It’s understandable if you start to dread having to talk to this person (or group of people). Eventually, you may even stop trying and just avoid the issue.

But there is another way.

Try this: instead of trying to talk about the issue, talk about the way you talk about the issue.

This is called a meta-conversation. It means discussing how you are both showing up to the conflict.

Happily, it’s almost always easier to discuss than the issue itself. Here’s how it can look:

  • For your partner who strong opinions about what school is best for your children, have the meta-conversation. Instead of trying to convince them of the pros of your argument and the cons of theirs, say, ‘hey can we talk about how we discuss this? It feels like we always go around in circles and end up mad at each other. Do you agree? How can we avoid that?’
  • For the defensive coworker who can’t receive any feedback, have the meta-conversation about how you find it tough to give them feedback – even praise! – because you’re afraid they won’t hear it. And if they get defensive right then… well, it’s much easier at that point to drop a gentle, “…What you’re doing right now… it’s reinforcing my feeling that it’s tough to give you feedback.” And now you’ve created a path where that person will be more receptive in the future.

Having the meta-conversation is effective for few reasons:

  • The first is that it’s one step removed from the actual topic of a difficult conversation, so it’s easier to be objective and less heated.
  • The second is that it’s an observation about an interaction that is shared, so you’re not pointing fingers, you’re simply saying, “Our conversations have this pattern” or “We seem to always do this…”

It puts both parties on the same side of observing the interaction and hopefully finding some common ground.

And once you have that common ground — once everyone agrees that the conversation could indeed be better — you can switch into figuring out how to make it so.

For the meta-conversation to go well, let go of needing to be right. If you go into it thinking it’s obviously the other person’s fault that your conversations get stuck, it’s not going to be as effective as if you acknowledge that all relationships and interactions are messy and imperfect.

The good news is that softening toward the other party is going to help you see where you are contributing to the conflict.

Be honest about what you are feeling, what you are noticing, and encourage the other person to do the same.

And give both of you a high five for being courageous and willing to change the conflict dynamic. Few of us have had conflict modelled well; our resistance to conflict ends up creating division, unspoken resentment and separation.

Instead of falling into the same argumentative patterns, it may be time to get meta.

I have found these meta-conversations have radically changed my marriage and my relationship with several family members.

Experiment with this and do let me know how it goes 🙂



Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totallyInstagram - join me there?


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