Communicating effectively requires intention, patience and a willingness to learn from others. Most of us communicate in a reactive and/or defensive manner especially when the topic gets a little sticky.
This method of communicating can become problematic when the topic or conversation is personal, emotional, meaningful... or otherwise difficult. Because two or more people come to a conversation with a lifetime of experience, reactive or defensive communication disregards the dynamic nature of being and creates a sub-story of unfairness and disharmony. The initial topic can easily become lost in the ever-consuming imbalance between communicators.
Before arriving at a difficult conversation, people have to overcome programming (from a plethora of sources) that aims to deny access to effective communication tools. As Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen write in their book, Difficult Conversations, "anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult." If you are able to get beyond fight or flight, it is crucial to understand how to engage in compassionate inquiry when venturing in to a difficult conversation.
Compassionate inquiry is based on tenets of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication which are self-empathy, empathy and honest self-expression. In short (very short) we speak with kindness of and to ourselves and others and we speak with vulnerability and authenticity. We use "I" statements and we hold others in unconditional positive regard. As a result, when we ask questions, we do so in an effort to understand, to affirm to the other party that we are listening and that we have interest in their needs being met. This is an intentional process and one that stretches a person because the concern is not just about having your own needs met - it is about striving to have everyone's needs met.
In the midst of a difficult conversation, many people resort to reactive, defensive, and sometimes aggressive communication. While the intention of participating in a difficult conversation is noble, approaching it with a reactive, defensive and/or aggressive style will weaken rapport and create disharmony almost instantaneously. The person using this style of communication approaches the conversation believing (consciously or unconsciously) that he/she knows the other person's motive/interests and everything they need to know about the topic. This person asks questions, not to understand, but to have his/her hypothesis about the situation confirmed. When the other party does not confirm the hypothesis, communication crumbles and the relationship suffers. This approach is about saving face - not saving the relationship.
When people are able to come together in the spirit of compassionate communication with the willingness to be vulnerable and maybe even wrong about some element of the situation - its amazing how the people involved are transformed. Moreover, very difficult conversations that are navigated with compassion and empathy have a revolutionary ripple effect.
It is scary to admit we might be wrong in our perspective or that we have room to grow. Its hard on the ego to be OTHER-minded in difficult conversations. And the ego, by its very nature, works tirelessly to make sure it is used as a filter as much as possible. It does not want to be left out. Unfortunately, most egos are so unrefined and so ME-oriented, they are unable to engage in difficult conversations effectively. The ego is not concerned with connection as much as it is with survival.
Compassionate inquiry is useful in everyday dialog - including internal dialog (intrapersonal communication) . Asking questions for the purpose of understanding creates trust and rapport. Don't hold on to the need to be right and you might just end up happy.