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How to Carry a Conversation: The Ultimate Guide

The Doe Team

by The Doe Team

| January 20, 2022

From starting a conversation and getting one back on track, to ending a discussion skillfully and knowing when not to engage in discourse—we’ve got you covered.CONTENTS



From starting a conversation and getting one back on track, to ending a discussion skillfully and knowing when not to engage in discourse—we’ve got you covered.

It isn’t always easy to engage in conversations. We inevitably have to confront controversial situations and handle conversations that aren’t easy to navigate. We not only have to articulate our thoughts but also need to consider the situation from the other person’s perspective.

Sensitive topics can trigger emotional reactions, making it challenging to have impartial discussions that don't spiral into personal attacks. Not to mention, our fears and preconceptions can prevent us from saying what we need to say.

So, how to make conversations effective and carry a productive civil discourse?

From starting a conversation and getting one back on track, to ending a discussion skillfully and knowing when not to engage in discourse, here are our best tips to help you get better at conversations.


The Art of Starting a Conversation

Starting a conversation, especially a difficult one, can be daunting. It can be anxiety inducing and stir up many emotions. While you can’t expect everything to go without a glitch, planning a conversation can help you speak with more confidence and honesty. 

Here are four tips on how to plan for a conversation:

Set the Stage 

Determine how much privacy you need and whether you want people around during the discussion. For example, if you have other people around at home, you may have the conversation at a nearby park for more privacy. Or if you want to have some people nearby, you may consider a secluded table in a coffee shop.

Timing is also critical, so consider the schedule of everyone involved. A difficult conversation may take longer than expected, and you don’t want anyone to feel pressed for time. You should also find a less stressful moment during the day so you can start the conversation in a more relaxed state of mind.

Know the Why

Knowing why you wanted to have the conversation may sound obvious, but you may struggle to communicate the reasons clearly when you feel stressed or emotional. Writing down what you want to discuss and get out of the conversation (e.g., a plan of action, a consensus) can help you guide it more effectively.

Practice Your Delivery

Being clear and succinct can help focus the conversation on what matters. Plus, if you start the conversation feeling awkward, it’d make the other person uncomfortable as well. After you have identified the “why,” find a way to communicate it in the simplest way possible. Then, rehearse it to make sure it feels natural and seamless to you.  

Find the Right Tact

Starting a conversation with the right tone can defuse tension and make the other person more receptive to your message. Consider how you can warm up a discussion of sensitive topics by putting your counterpart at ease. You can also speak with “I” statements so they don't feel like you're backing them into a corner.


Keeping a Conversation on Track

It’s not uncommon for a difficult conversation to stray into misunderstanding, confusion and hostility. But it doesn’t mean you should just throw your hands in the air and walk away. Here are some conversation tips to help you get a discussion back on track:

Adjust Your Mindset

Don’t go into a conversation assuming that you know it all. Be curious and ask open-ended questions to understand the other person’s perspectives. See if you’re overlooking a missing piece of the puzzle that could turn the conversation in a positive direction.

Stay Open to New Information

When you ask questions, you must also be receptive to new information. You may discover something that contradicts what you believe. Be honest, take a step back and adjust your position if necessary.

Use Neutral Language

Keep your words succinct and neutral to avoid suggesting negative traits in the other person. A respectful tone can help you defuse tense situations and prevent the conversation from veering off course.

Validate Your Assumptions

Separate facts from assumptions and examine them to make sure they’re accurate. This can help you enter or restart the conversation with a level head and steer it in a constructive direction.

Reiterate Your Intention

Get the other party on your side by stating your intention to reach a mutually beneficial outcome. This can help lower conversation barriers by emphasizing your commonalities rather than differences.

Take Your Time to Respond

Don’t be reactive or feel pressured to have an answer right away. You may even pause the conversation and take a 10-minute break to walk around the block to regain perspective.

Stay Respectful in Your Conversations

Keeping discourse respectful is key to navigating disagreements and difficult subjects.

Your point of view is apparent to you, but don’t assume that the other person understands it. Take the time to share your point of view, explain your thought process and build common ground.

Keep in mind that you can agree to disagree. It’s not always about being right—instead, focus on being curious and seeing the issue from other perspectives.

Constructive dialogue depends on the attitude of everyone involved, so be mindful of the energy you bring to the table. If you find the conversation spiraling into personal attacks, take a step back and guide it back to the topic at hand.

While you should be clear and direct, avoid making generalizations and absolute statements. Enter the conversation with an open mind, and don’t jump to conclusions until you have the chance to consider all sides of the issue.

When you stay respectful of the other party, you can guide the conversation constructively to achieve the intended outcomes.


How to End a Conversation Skillfully

The truth is that not all discourses can be salvaged. There are times when you need to walk away from a conversation or park it for another day when both parties have the chance to cool off and consider the other person’s perspective. 

Know That the Feeling Is Probably Mutual

In research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), participants say that the average conversation should be about 50% shorter and ending a discussion is often a coordination problem.

Be candid when you feel that it’s time to end a conversation—the other person probably feels the same! Use an “I” statement (e.g., “I feel that we should park this discussion for now.”) instead of laying blame on the other person (e.g., “You’re so stubborn, we aren’t going anywhere with this.”) to express your desire to leave the discussion.

Bow Out of Unsolicited Advice

We have all had a conversation where the other person started giving unsolicited advice or criticism. If that makes you feel attacked or inadequate, you’re no longer having the conversation on equal footing, and it’s time to leave the discussion.

Instead of reacting emotionally, use this as an opportunity to exit the conversation. For example, you can say, “Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll keep it in mind. But I need to go now. Maybe we can pick this conversation back up some other time?”

Know Your Boundaries and Be Direct

Being direct is often the best way to prevent an unproductive conversation from dragging on. Just say, “Thanks for chatting with me about this. I don’t think we’re heading the right direction. Maybe we should pick this back up some other time,” and stop engaging in the discussion.

To be decisive and know when to walk away, you must get clear about your boundaries. This gives you the power to say “enough is enough,'' instead of bending over backward to avoid conflicts or try to please others.

Set Up Your Exit With a Final Word

Make it clear that you’re ready to end a conversation by sharing your final thoughts. You can say, "One last thing before I go..." or, “Before I head out, I wanted to say...”

You can also hint at your intention to pick up the conversation later when you have the chance to cool off or consider the other person’s point of view. For example, you can sum up the discussion and indicate how you’d want to take it further by saying, “Here’s what I learned from today: [summary/conclusion]. I think this is what we should discuss next time we get together.”


Knowing When to Walk Away Is Just as Important

It’s perfectly OK to agree to disagree in civil discourse. However, if a conversation spirals into a disrespectful argument that no longer inspires change or understanding, it’s time to stop engaging and walk away.

The Breeding Grounds for Arguments

Here are just a few situations where you may choose not to engage in an unproductive conversation:

  • Family gatherings with people who hold different values or perspectives than you do.
  • Places with distractions where you can’t fully pay attention to the conversation.
  • A work environment where repeated offensive remarks could be a sign of harassment.
  • Dating when you haven’t had the chance to know your date's stance on important issues.

Pick Your Battle: Know When to Walk Away

Not engaging in an argument doesn’t mean you’re weak. It’s a sign of courage and self-respect that you value your time and energy.

Don’t engage in an argument when you find yourself in a hostile environment where speaking up could threaten your physical safety. Also, walk away when your counterpart becomes irritated and will not be swayed by facts and logic.

Consider ending a conversation when the other person refuses to listen or make changes. Lastly, disengage if you feel exhausted. When you’re in a vulnerable place, bowing out to give yourself time to reflect and recover is often the best course of action.


What if Not Engaging Isn’t an Option?

Sometimes, walking away from a situation isn’t an option. Although we can’t control our circumstances, we can decide how we handle the dialogue. Here are some conversation tips for difficult discussions:

Don’t Be Reactive

Pause and take a deep breath. This can reset your nervous system and get you out of the fight-or-flight state of mind. Then, respond instead of react—take the time to consider all sides of the argument and recenter yourself. You can say, “I’d like to think about this before I respond”—this is often enough to defuse a tense situation.

Be Curious

Ask questions to help you understand the other person’s thought process (e.g., “What makes you think that?”) and turn disagreements into growth opportunities. Also, be curious about your own reactions. Your body language is a great indicator of how you feel, and observing your nonverbal reactions can help align your response to your values.

Manage Your Emotions

Take deep breaths instead of lashing out if you feel triggered and emotional. Let everything wash over you while the other person speaks their piece. This can help you calm down and even uncover common grounds to take the conversation in a constructive direction.


How Self-Reflection Can Support Healthy Conversations

To interact with others effectively, we must first understand ourselves. Self-reflection can help us navigate difficult conversations by sharing ideas and opinions without fighting, attacking, displaying contempt or arguing.

The Key Benefits of Self-Reflection

Self-reflection, or introspection, is the process of examining your thoughts and feelings and evaluating your motives and beliefs. You can gain insights into your communication style and how you engage in conversations for more productive interactions. It can help you:

  • Uncover your assumptions. Unfounded assumptions can derail a conversation. Take the time to separate your assumptions from facts, evaluate their validity and understand how they impact your point of view.
  • Identify your triggers. It’s much harder to consider the facts and have a level-headed discussion when you’re emotional. Find out what words or phrases may trigger you so you can better control how you respond.
  • Manage your reactions. Once you have identified your triggers, you can take control by tampering down your emotions and responding neutrally and productively.
  • Review your behaviors. Reflect on your behaviors and evaluate the outcomes after a difficult conversation to see how you can improve. However, be careful not to fall into self-blame or self-criticism. 
  • Improve your responses. As you reflect on a previous conversation, take some time to formulate and rehearse a better response. You’ll be in a much better position to create a positive outcome next time you have similar discussions

What You Should Consider During Self-Reflection

Here are some questions to ask when you reflect on your conversations:

  • Did you say what you needed to say without worrying about being judged or criticized by others?
  • Did you formulate a response before the other person finished sharing their thoughts? Did doing so prevent you from practicing active listening?
  • Did you use words that could trigger the other party to try to gain an upper hand?
  • Did you ask leading questions to get the other person to agree with your point of view?
  • What conversational tactics, references or words annoy you, and do you use them in a discussion?
  • Did you bring your biases or untested assumptions into the conversation?

These are not easy questions to reflect on. But if we’re honest with ourselves and become more mindful, we can better engage in healthy conversations and create positive outcomes.


Staying True to Your Values in Conversations

We engage in different conversations every day with various people about a wide range of topics. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to having a healthy conversation or productive discourse.

Constructive civil discourse should expand your perspectives, fuel your growth, inspire your actions and leave you feeling energized. To achieve these benefits, you must understand your own values and what you want to get out of the conversation.

Then, you’ll have clarity on how to express your intention, use facts and logic to support your position and know when it’s time to agree to disagree and leave a discussion. Not to mention, having clarity on what you stand for can help you reflect on your behaviors to align your thoughts and actions.

Want to learn more about how to carry a conversation and navigate controversial topics while upholding your values? Subscribe to our blog to get our latest insights on how you can fuel your growth with civil discourse.


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