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Navigating Stormy Waters: Using Human-Centered Principles in Difficult Conversations

By Lianne Dominguez
Navigating Stormy Waters: Using Human-Centered Principles in Difficult Conversations

Have you ever had a conversation with someone so rude and difficult that you felt like giving up? I've been there, and let me tell you, it's never easy. As a leader, I pride myself on having a conflict-resolution toolbox. I've gone through countless experiences, poured over my Principal's Training Center facilitator materials, explored theories, and collected a stash of inspirational quotes about diplomatic skills and patience. But in this one particular encounter, none of that seemed to matter. I was left feeling utterly defenseless, and no strategy in the world could shield me from the offensive energy that was being thrown my way.

I remember sitting across from this person, feeling my patience wearing thin with every word they uttered. I tried desperately to recall all the conflict resolution techniques I had learned throughout my career, but it was like my mind had gone blank. My thoughts were a jumbled mess of theories and strategies, and none of them seemed to apply to this situation. I found myself thinking, "Why isn't any of this working?"

In that moment, I realized that I was missing something crucial. I had been so focused on being the perfect leader, the one who always had the right answers and the right approach, that I had forgotten a fundamental truth: I am human too. I am allowed to feel a wide range of emotions, including shock, pain, frustration, and even vulnerability.

So, I took a deep breath and allowed myself to acknowledge those emotions. I let myself feel the shock of the encounter and the pain of being on the receiving end of such rudeness. I gave myself permission to be human, and in doing so, I found the strength to bounce back.

It was at that moment that I realized that the most powerful shield I could wield in a difficult conversation was not a strategy or a theory; it was my humanity. I shifted my focus from trying to outwit the other person to truly understanding them. I let go of my need to be right and instead focused on creating a connection. I started working through the conversation with a human-centered approach.

In the heat of a difficult conversation, one of the most challenging but essential human-centered principles to embrace is empathy. It's natural to react defensively when someone is being rude or confrontational, but taking a moment to cultivate empathy can be a game-changer. Here are some ways to embrace empathy:

Putting Yourself in Their Shoes:

Empathy begins with a conscious effort to step into the other person's shoes. Ask yourself what might be going on in their life that's causing them to act this way. Are they under immense stress? Do they have personal issues that are affecting their behavior? Is there something about the situation that's triggering them? It's crucial to remember that considering these factors doesn't excuse their behavior, but it can help you approach the conversation with a deeper understanding.

Recognizing Emotions Behind the Words:

Often, the rude or defensive words someone uses may be a mask for underlying emotions such as fear, frustration, or insecurity. Instead of reacting to the surface-level rudeness, try to listen for the emotions behind their words. Are they expressing a fear of failure, a sense of powerlessness, or a need for validation? By identifying these deeper emotions, you can address the root causes more effectively.

Active Listening:

Empathetic listening involves actively engaging with the other person's perspective. Rather than focusing solely on formulating your response, make a concerted effort to truly hear what they are saying. Maintain eye contact, nod in acknowledgment, and offer verbal cues that show you are attentive. By demonstrating your willingness to listen, you create a safe space for them to express themselves.

Avoid Judgments:

One of the pitfalls to empathy is making quick judgments or assumptions about the other person's intentions or character. Avoid jumping to conclusions about their motivations. Instead, focus on the observable behaviors and words in the context of the situation.

Ask Open-Ended Questions:  

Encourage the other person to share more about their perspective by asking open-ended questions. These questions invite them to express themselves in greater depth, fostering a more meaningful and constructive conversation. For instance, instead of asking, "Why are you being so difficult?" you can ask, "Could you help me understand what's bothering you about this situation?"

Cultivating empathy is not always easy, especially when emotions are running high, but it's a powerful tool for building bridges in difficult conversations. When you approach the interaction with empathy, you're more likely to create an environment where both parties feel heard and understood. Remember, empathy doesn't mean you're condoning rude behavior; it means you're choosing to respond with compassion and understanding, which can lead to more productive outcomes. In the end, it's about recognizing our shared humanity and finding common ground even in the most challenging exchanges.

Let's delve even deeper into practical strategies that can help you navigate stormy waters with ease and effectiveness. These strategies will empower you to try a different approach, ensuring that your interactions not only lead to resolution but also foster stronger connections:

Stay Calm and Composed:

It's challenging but try to maintain your composure even when the other person is being difficult. Responding with anger or frustration usually escalates the situation. Take deep breaths and stay focused on finding a resolution.

Seek Common Ground:  

Look for areas of agreement or shared goals. Finding common ground can be a powerful way to bridge differences and work towards a solution. It can even be beneficial to create shared agreements - I had success with this!

Set Boundaries:  

While it's important to be empathetic, it's also crucial to establish your boundaries and assert yourself respectfully. Let the other person know what behavior is unacceptable.

Consider Timing and Location:

Sometimes, the timing or location of a conversation can impact its outcome. Choose a suitable time and place that minimizes distractions and allows for a more focused discussion.

Dealing with difficult people in challenging conversations is never easy, but by applying these human-centered principles, I've found that I can navigate these situations with more grace and effectiveness. It's a journey of self-discovery and growth, and it's worth the effort to create better connections with those around us. Remember, you're not alone in facing difficult conversations, and by approaching them with empathy and understanding, you can turn them into opportunities for growth and resolution. So, the next time you find yourself in a tense exchange, take a step back, breathe, and apply these principles. You might just be surprised at the positive impact it can have on both you and the person you're conversing with. Embrace your humanity, and let empathy guide you toward more meaningful and constructive interactions.

Originally published on LinkedIn

Lianne Dominguez is a dynamic and innovative leader within the international school community with extensive experience in academics, residential life, and international school operations. Her expertise brings valuable insight to complex challenges and program development. As the Secondary School Principal and founding member of Shattuck-St Mary's Forest City International School in Malaysia, Lianne's leadership in articulating the school's mission and vision has been crucial in driving its growth and success. A firm believer in creating safe practices for professional growth and supervision, Lianne is dedicated to promoting staff and student success. She has successfully implemented programs that foster a culture of support and collaboration among staff, ensuring that everyone has access to the resources and guidance they need to thrive and flourish. As an experienced mentor and educator, Lianne has worked with both adult learners and adolescents in schools and NGOs. She also serves as a facilitator at the Principals Training Center (PTC) Summer Institute and is a NEASC Accreditation Visitor. Currently, Lianne serves as a mentor for the AIELOC’s Aspiring Leaders of Color program, reflecting her passion for diversity and inclusion initiatives. Her commitment to empowering the next generation of leaders and fostering inclusive communities has made her an exceptional role model and a valuable member of the education community.

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