3 Sanity-Saving Conversation Tips
‘Tis the season for parties! Office parties, cocktail parties, family parties… And parties mean conversations. Lovely! Thankfully, there are so many conversation topics to choose from, especially after the last year and a half: politics and government, the economy, social injustice, religion, gun control, pandemic protocols … or you could talk about the weather (like climate change!). Add a really opinionated conversation partner with viewpoints diametrically opposed to your own and maybe a little alcohol… and what could possibly go wrong? Sounds delightful. (I really wish someone would invent a sarcasm font.)
But here we are, folks. This is real life. Not everyone sees things the same way you do, for better or for worse, and somehow we all have to exist on the same planet. Or perhaps in the same conference room or dining room. Learning how to navigate challenging, awkward, or downright offensive conversations is a life skill—one you can master—that will provide you with more resilience, less stress, and greater fulfilment in life.
The primary way to do this is to listen fully and respectfully, speak authentically, and manage your emotions. You’ve heard it before: come from a place of curiosity, don’t interrupt, stay calm, acknowledge the other’s feelings and values even when you disagree with their argument, and then, once you’ve proven you understand their point of view and they feel heard, share your own.
And that’s great advice! Advice I’ve delivered myself (hence all the links—check them out, there’s good stuff there). But sometimes you don’t want to invest in the relationship that much. It is, after all, an investment—an investment of time and energy and emotional output. So, what then? Let’s say you don’t have the time or energy. Or maybe you just don’t want to get into a controversial topic because it’s not the right time or place. Or maybe you’re dealing with a toxic person who just likes to argue and you know there’s no winning.
In those scenarios, I hereby give you permission to put your own sanity first and NOT go to all the time and trouble of turning the conversation into a relationship-building exercise. Instead, I give you three tips that will help you manage challenging people (and your conversations with them) in the easiest and most expedient way:
1. Be Ready.
Sometimes you’re caught off guard by a comment or opinion, but most of the time you know who the problem people or topics are before you enter a social engagement. An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Especially for introverts, who take a little time to process compared to extroverts, here are three things to consider before a potential awkward conversation:
What are you willing to discuss? This could change based on the people involved, but if you know ahead of time what you feel comfortable talking about, you’ll have fewer decisions to make in the moment. When you decide in advance that you aren’t going to discuss a certain topic with a certain person, you can more easily divert the conversation to another topic.
How do you want to be? Even when you do know what might come up, you cannot predict or control everything (or anything?) so instead of planning out your topics or your responses, focus on how you want to come across. Calm? Light-hearted? Confident? Patient? Whatever it is, keeping that in mind will help guide you through challenging conversations better than a preplanned script.
What are your exit strategies? A few phrases can help you gracefully end a topic or completely exit a conversation you no longer want to participate in. Have a few in mind. For example:
- I need to think about what you just said. I’ll get back to you on that. In the meantime…
- You could be right!
- This isn’t a great time (or place) to talk about this. Let’s pick it back up later. Instead, what do you think of…?
- I’m feeling frustrated/angry/riled up. I need to take a break from this conversation. <smile and change the subject or simply walk away>
- I don’t want to keep you…
- Excuse me, I need to greet my guests/get a drink/find the restroom/catch up with another person/any other excuse…
- Thanks for chatting!
You don’t need to (nor can you) plan out your conversations, but a little forethought can go a long way toward creating smooth interactions.
2. Preserve Egos.
It’s a lot easier to preserve someone else’s ego if your own is fairly grounded. That’s a whole other topic in itself, but if you enter a conversation knowing that you are you and nothing and nobody can dent your identity or self-worth, then pretty much anything another person can say becomes irrelevant. That’s their crap. Not yours.
If your goal is to glide through social interactions without great emotional investment (and that’s a big if—sometimes you want and need to stand up for yourself and your beliefs) then avoid pushing buttons. Even if it seems warranted, don’t humiliate, blame, show contempt or condescension, put down, or attack the character or personality of others.
Those types of tactics don’t help you win any fights, even when you do want to get into the fray. They just provide fuel for the fire. If you truly want to engage, practice all that good advice I gave up above instead of relying on cheap shots. If you don’t want to get involved, and you find yourself getting upset, make a mental note to expend the energy and vent the anger another time. Talk to a friend, write in a journal, do a kickboxing workout… Just because you feel it now doesn’t mean you have to express it now. Get it out. Later.
But regardless of whether you decide to engage or not, to express the full range of your feelings now or not, do make the other person feel like a worthy and important human being. (Because they are. Even when you think they’re crazy, offensive, and wrong.)
3. Keep It Light.
If you’re looking to preserve your sanity and your energy, for goodness’ sake don’t go looking for trouble. If you want trouble and drama and debate, fine. But don’t go complaining to your friends and family about your injuries when you willingly stepped in to the ring.
To diffuse volatile situations, rather than inflaming them, do this:
Let others win. Oooh, I can feel you wanting to punch someone just from the suggestion. But not everything needs to be a battle. Especially when the only point is to fight.
I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
– George Bernard Shaw
Of course, it’s hard not to fight when you see yourself as a fighter. Is there more to your identity than that? Do you value more than winning? I believe you do. Find that and hang on to it.
Watch your nonverbals. How does your voice sound? You might feel like you’re simply making a statement or observation, but your nonverbal communication will betray how personal you are taking the discussion. To keep it light, be mindful of the three P’s:
- Pace—are your words calm and measured or tumbling over each other and hardly understandable because you can’t get them out fast enough?
- Pitch—are you speaking with your normal voice or did it suddenly get much higher (you’re nervous) or much lower (you’re cross)?
- Power—are you speaking in a conversational tone or did you SUDDENLY GET LOUD?
Use humor. Don’t, of course, use humor at someone else’s expense. (Ever. See Point #2.) But use it to add levity, fun, and charm to an interaction. Humor can help you get out of uncomfortable conversations and set the tone.
Be bland. This one is tough if your ego is involved, but often the best way to deal with a toxic or obnoxious person is to simply be too uninteresting to bother with. Often referred to as the “gray rock method,” this technique allows you to disconnect and disengage from the person who is causing you distress. It is not a viable solution for a long-term relationship, but can be very useful for annoying people that you don’t want or need to be emotionally invested in.
Human beings can be annoying, hurtful, and difficult. But humans can also be the most enjoyable and meaningful part of you life. Choose which relationships you want to invest your time and energy in. For the rest—don’t let them get to you. Be ready, be positive, and be easy-going. You’ll feel better, enjoy your interactions more, and have more energy for those people and conversations that really matter.