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Getting a Difficult Conversation Back on Track

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| November 11, 2021

Tips and guidelines to use when a conversation goes wrong.

Our conversations can go off course for a variety of reasons, regardless of our intention to engage in civil discourse about the topic. Everyone has probably had a conversation that veered off into misunderstanding, confusion and hostility. This is inevitable if you engage with people often enough on important topics. If you want to salvage a difficult conversation, what are your options?


Tips for Turning Uncivil Discourse Into Civil Discourse

Everyone knows those jokes about the uncle who gets drunk at Thanksgiving and shares his divisive opinions. While few of us will have a family gathering that goes like that, we may well encounter people who decide to express controversial views on various topics. Here are some tips for turning conversations around, which we adapted from a Harvard Business Review article on getting a difficult conversation back on track:

  1. Focus on learning - You have the chance to learn something new. If you can adjust your thoughts to a growth mindset, you’re more likely to get the discussion back on track.
  2. Stay neutral - Avoid language that suggests a negative trait like ignorance,  closed-mindedness or selfishness. Keeping your language neutral and clear can help diffuse tense discussions and stop the conversation from steering further off course.
  3. Clarify your assumptions - Unfounded assumptions can derail conversations in a hurry. Try to be mindful of what’s a fact and what’s an assumption you may have made. Taking a beat to clarify or recognize your assumptions may help turn the discussion in a more positive direction.
  4. Verbalize your intention - Ease into asking a question or making a statement by saying you just want to understand or clarify something. Then, you can continue. By making your intentions known, it may help lower conversation barriers.
  5. Stay curious - Resolving to be open and curious about alternate perspectives on a topic is the key to making the best use of those other tips. Remember, it’s not about being right.

Be humble because you never know when you might be missing something. Ask open-ended questions to clarify the other person’s logic or conclusions. This is the easiest way to restore some emotional balance to a conversation that’s turned heated. These tips and guidelines also apply online. And, in the online world, you have the advantage of being separated in space from the person who wants to debate. Remember, it’s okay to take your time to respond or not respond at all and disengage from a discussion that has gotten too far off track.


How to Disengage if You Must

If a discussion has passed the point of no return, you’ll need to find a way to respectfully, and safely, disengage. Here are some tactics for disengaging from a difficult conversation:

  1. Bring others into the discussion.
  2. Suggest a change of subject.
  3. Use kindness as an out.
  4. Be direct about your boundaries.
  5. Set up your exit with a finalizing statement.

You can read more about these tips in our blog “Hi and Goodbye: 4 Ways to End a Conversation.”


Remember the Guidelines for Respectful Discourse

You can find a complete set of ten rules and guidelines for everyday discourse in the blog article “The Rules of Civil Discourse.” These rules should be your baseline for engaging in discourse, whether or not the discussion has gone off track. To summarize, the rules are as follows:

  1. Don’t assume your counterpart can innately see from your point of view. 
  2. Don’t engage in personal attacks; guide the conversation back to the topic. 
  3. Good dialogue depends on your words and your attitude.
  4. A successful outcome means respect, not agreement. 
  5. Be clear and direct. 
  6. Avoid making generalizations and absolute statements. 
  7. Do not respond unless you fully understand. 
  8. Enter the conversation with an open mind. 
  9. Remember that it’s not about being right but about being curious. 
  10. Reflect on what you learn as you engage with people.


Learn More About Having Great Conversations

Would you like to learn more about having effective conversations, especially about difficult or controversial topics? Stay in touch by following us on social media and subscribing to our blog so you’ll know when we publish more content on civil discourse. 


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