Addressing Sensitive Topics During Conflict

Posted on April 30th, 2012 by Nancy Pridgen

Dealing with conflict is often challenging, but when the particular conflict also involves a sensitive issue, it can be even more difficult.  Here are some tips to keep in mind when addressing a sensitive topic.

  • Decide if a conversation is necessary.  Some issues are simply not worth discussing because they’re of little consequence, or they seem to be resolving themselves without any kind of intervention.  For others, you might want to wait to bring them up until you’ve gathered more information or had a chance to reflect on what you want to say.  Some, though, need immediate attention because they’re causing big problems, and you anticipate those problems will only increase if not addressed soon.
  • Understand that “sensitive topic” does not mean “We can’t talk about it.”  A common reason for a topic becoming “sensitive” is that people have been avoiding it for a long time.  Typical avoidance behaviors include:-Using jokes as a way of distracting from the real issue
    -Using evasive or noncommittal statements about the issue
    -Focusing on side issues instead of the major issue
    -Being too polite or non-confrontational
    -Pretending to be in agreement when you’re really not

It’s tempting to avoid a touchy subject, but so many times the problem continues to fester, and the relationship can get even worse.

  • Ask permission.  Rather than just jumping right into details, saying “I have something a little sensitive to talk with you about.  Would that be okay?”sets the tone for the rest of the conversation.  Also, actually naming the issue “sensitive” and calling it as it really is can create a new norm where this particular issue won’t be so taboo in the future.
  • Consider the communication environment.  Think about the appropriate time and place for your discussion.  Find a time free of interruptions, and do whatever you can to minimize any distractions.  Keep it as private as possible.
  • Choose your words wisely.  Communicating your own reactions, thoughts, and feelings by using “I” statements helps lessen the potential defensiveness that might arise when dealing with a delicate issue.  Avoid using pejorative or inflammatory labels; simply describe behaviors without being judgmental.  Try not to use generalizations such as “always” and “never.”
  • Be aware of non-verbal behavior.  How your message is received is greatly affected by nonverbal signals such as tone of voice, volume, body language, and word choice.  Think of how the other person might respond, and do your best to communicate in a straightforward, but warm, manner.
  • Practice active listening.  Listening effectively is important in all conversations, but it is even more critical when dealing with an issue that is likely to evoke emotions.  A true demonstration that you’re really listening to the other person paves the way for a more authentic exchange and also helps both parties to regain emotional balance.

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