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…