10 Conversational Hazards to Avoid During Conflict
These behaviors can totally derail productive discourse
Conflict between human beings is inevitable. Unfortunately, in our zeal to be right, and in exercising our right to scream, many of us destroy relationships, relinquish credibility, and become ineffective to the people we most want to influence.
The solution is not a magic formula but a conscious shift in our relationship with conflict itself. It means learning skills of healthy disagreement, understanding that we can hold fast to our convictions while allowing others to sharpen us and our ideas. It also means engaging impasse in ways that help us truly see each other and let ourselves be seen.
Here is a go-to reference for behaviors to avoid during difficult conversations. I call them “hazards” because they can totally derail productive discourse:
- Trolling: provoking someone in order to knock them off balance. Some people do it unintentionally, but it’s usually a choice. When you’re tempted to troll, consider your motives in the moment. Are you trying to win or promote drama? Are you trying to create a distraction so you don’t have to face strong feelings or challenging ideas? Or are you truly trying to understand?
- Wearing the crown: being condescending or acting superior and should be avoided at all costs. It fosters resentment and power grabbing.
- Pontificating: using big words and ideas that no one else can speak to or giving long-winded speeches that don’t allow for engagement. If you find yourself talking at other people, try using words of one or two syllables for a while. Try using shorter sentences and asking more questions. For the sake of the conversation, challenge yourself to dial it back and share space.
- Bigfooting: spreading conspiracy theories that are unproductive and unprovable one way or another. Stick to what you know that you know and what is reasonable to discuss with your conversation partner.
- Bunny trailing: veering the conversation away from the heart of the matter, either intentionally or unintentionally. This is also called whataboutism (“but what about…”). Whether or not you mean to bunny trail, doing this causes missed conversational opportunities by spending time on details that aren’t relevant.
- All-speak: using grand, sweeping statements that can neither be proven nor refuted or trying to speak for everyone or an entire group of people. Stick to your social location, your experiences, your sources, your feelings, your convictions. These are enough. You don’t have to be an expert on everything.
- “My neighbor Cathy:” the fallacy of wrongly assuming an isolated instance is the norm. It’s like that one time your neighbor Cathy gave you cookies, and now you assume all your neighbors will always give you cookies.
- Downstreaming: getting stuck looking at the results without being concerned about the causes. If you’re studying the problem of a polluted lake, for instance, it would be a mistake not to look at the rivers that feed the lake. Instead of downstreaming, ask questions: What are the causes? What causes those causes? Who benefits from them?
- 2 + 2 = pickles: or, jumping to conclusions. This usually stems from a desperate, even frantic desire for resolution. Resist the urge to rush. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to explore many options, even options you aren’t likely to agree with. You don’t need to decide everything or try to read someone’s mind. No one can force you to believe anything you don’t want to believe, so you don’t have to be in a hurry deciding. You are in control.
- Shutting down: A state of no longer being able to engage, whether because someone you’re speaking with feels emotionally unsafe or because someone has reached their limit in the conversation. If you feel yourself shutting down, first of all, thank yourself for being self-aware. Consider sharing how you feel; sometimes this can make your experience much easier for you and others to deal with because it’s simply reality. You can either work through it together or take a break, which are both good options.
None of us are perfect at avoiding these hazards all the time we encounter conflict, but the only way we can fail is to give up. As long as we keep trying, there is hope for growth. Good luck as you practice.