Three Words You Need for Your Next Hard Conversation

When I’m catching up with an old friend, or ranting to a work buddy, I don’t think much about conversational structure. But some conversations aren’t so easy. In those tougher discussions, it can help to lay out some rules ahead of time, as awkward as that might feel at first.

One tool that I’ve found immensely helpful for navigating difficult conversations comes out of community activism. I learned it in a parenting and racial equity workshop, and it’s called Oops, Ouch, Whoa. Here’s how it works:

  • If you say something that comes out wrong, that you suddenly realize is kind of shitty, or just sounds different hanging in the air than it did in your head, you say “oops.”
  • If someone else says something that hits you in a way that feels bad, you say “ouch.”
  • If the conversation is moving too fast, you’re not following a line of reasoning, you aren’t familiar with a concept or an acronym, or you just want to slow down, you say “whoa,” and ask for clarification.

The point of this tool is to signal a clear set of values: Mistakes are normal, harm can be mended, it’s okay to not know something, and accountability is a shared responsibility.

You introduce the rules at the very beginning, creating a collective agreement for the structure of the conversation that’s about to take place. And you acknowledge that simply saying “oops” or “ouch” may not fully address the impact of what someone has said.

Shela Linton, the workshop leader who explained Oops, Ouch, Whoa to me, is one of the founders of The Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, Vermont. She facilitates dozens of challenging conversations a month in her role as an activist for social and racial equity, and she said this tool has become more vital lately, as people try to dismantle white supremacist culture, and struggle with difficult conversations about historical wrongs, and systemic inequalities.

“We’re looking for more accountability,” Linton says. In a typically structured meeting or workshop, she tells me, “A lot of times, there isn’t space. There isn’t space for clarity. There isn’t space for feelings. There isn’t space for understanding. There isn’t space for mistakes.”

She adds, “We’re not able to address harm in the moment. So if somebody says something that’s harmful or hurtful, or really either racist, or inconsiderate, or harmful in any way, we kind of just let that person say what they say.”

Linton doesn’t remember when she first came across the Oops, Ouch, Whoa paradigm, but she does vividly recall a meeting where such an agreement was not in place — and badly needed. Linton, who is black, was part of a task force on racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system, including lawmakers, police officers, and lawyers, as well as activists. “I remember sitting in the meeting, and something was said, and I don’t remember what it was, but it was very racist, and very, not okay,” she says. “And we didn’t have tools, we didn’t have agreement… I literally screamed out. And it was like, either nobody heard me, or people thought I got bit by a spider under the table or something. Nobody even blinked an eye.”

Using a tool like Oops, Ouch, Whoa doesn’t just make the conversation more productive. It also more equitably distributes the responsibility for the hardest parts of it, says Linton. Rather than the facilitator being entirely on the hook, it’s up to everyone to fully participate and to bring the ground rules to bear. “What this is really about is about shifting culture,” Linton says. “We dehumanize ourselves by thinking that we always have to say the right thing, or we’d have to do the right thing.”

The specific rules you set for the conversation are less important than simply coming to an agreement that makes it safer for everyone involved, said Daniel Stillman, the author of Good Talk; How to Design Conversations That Matter. “It’s about establishing a shared logic of what is going on.” In a marital spat, for example, he says, “the ground rules are at the end of this fight, we’re still going to be married.”

Trained as an industrial designer, Stillman now helps organizations, businesses, and individuals develop effective frameworks for communication. “Oops, Ouch, Whoa, that’s a thread, that’s a framework that becomes a ritual that we can hold onto through the conversation, so we don’t get lost,” Stillman says.

Of course, simply adopting a good framework does not fix everything. I have used the system with my young children, and while it mostly works pretty well, my five-year-old son has discovered what he sees as a loophole: He will sometimes look at me, hit his younger sister, and then say, “Oops, Mom!”

That’s when I have to explain that this tool is no excuse for a shitty-on-purpose “oops” — just as it’s not an invitation to talk someone out of their “ouch.”

But that’s part of the point: an honest and kind conversation. “We don’t always get out of the tools what we think we might get out of them,” Linton says. “But it’s a place maker, it’s a culture. It’s a container. It’s a way to slow down.”

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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