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Can You Handle Difficult Discussions?

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.


Chris Grace:                 Welcome to another Art of Relationships Podcast with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff. I'm Chris Grace, and we have the joy and pleasure just coming to you on a regular basis, Tim talking about all things relationships. And now we're talking about the art and the science of relationships. Ways in which we can navigate difficulties. Ways we can increase our ability to connect with other people. And just topics that we think are important for relationships.

Tim Muehlhoff:             And the last podcast we did was based on a book that I wrote with a friend of mine, Rick Langer, called "Winsome Persuasion," and we said that your reputation heading into the conversation is going to be the most important part because it establishes your ethos, your credibility. And we broke that down into three simple concepts: Intelligence, do you know both sides of the issue? Can you reasonably talk about your spouse's perspective or roommate's perspective and add the emotion? Second, do you live a virtuous life? I mean, are you living what you're preaching? And then third, good will. And you said kindness was incredibly important. Okay, all of that's great. But now a listener might be saying, "Okay, but at five o'clock, we're actually going to have this conversation, okay? So, you got to help me. How do I do it? How do I structure it?" And this is where psychology and calm theory really come together in some powerful ways.

                                    So, we'd mention a guy named John Gottman all the time. For good reason. He's one of the top marital researchers. He talks about something called the critical startup to any conversation. He basically says how a conversation begins is how it's going to end. So, the first two minutes of the beginning of this difficult conversation is going to set the tone for the entire conversation. So, you can't go in revved up. Right? And some of us do this. We've been putting off this topic forever and finally you're like, "I can't take this anymore." Right? "I'm sick of it. And I'm, we're talking about finances. I don't care if this is a good time. I don't care of you're ready. We need to talk about it and by golly, we're going to talk about it." We would say coming in that hot is just not a good idea.

Chris Grace:                  Yeah, the whole idea of a harsh startup begins that there is no doubt behind it, a vast amount of emotional energy. You feel it and in almost all of your conversations around this topic jumped from level five or six to this level of 75, 85, 90 on the emotional scale. So quickly, the argument is already starting off or the conversation's already starting off on the wrong foot. And that, Tim I think for many people, what they have to be able to do is begin to recognize, "Okay, every time we have this conversation, I just get emotional about it." And there must be some things that you do ahead of time to prepare for that moment and plan it out so that you don't fall into the trap of jumping in and having this whole conversation go south immediately because the outcome of these harsh startup conversations is not a pleasant one.

Tim Muehlhoff:             And by the way, we're not a good judge of our harshness, right? Sometimes we would think, "Wait, whoa, I was perfectly calm. I was perfectly under control, and you're saying I'm coming at you really hot, angry, and upset?" So, two things about that. One, it is possible that the other person is just that defensive. Right? You bring up anything, it's like, "Whoa! What are you doing attacking me?" So I want to allow for that. But it's also good for you to be aware of your communication tendencies. And that's why I think it's good on a totally different conversation to sit down with your spouse, to sit down with your kids, and to have what we all the meta communication conversation, which is let's talk about our communication. How do you think we do talking about hard topics, having conflict, and how do I come across to you? Now, I don't suggest that you do that right before you're about to have a particular conversation about finances. But that would be a great side conversation to say how well do you think we do, and more importantly, I want to know how I come across towards you when we do talk about hard issues. We call that metacommunication. It's a great conversation that very few people have.

Chris Grace:                  Yeah, and the idea behind meta, of course, is it means what's the underlying, sometimes there are these, we would sometimes call or refer to them as hidden or deeper issues. And that meta is, we sometimes have to call this out, and there's a little bit of a need for us to take account of ourselves and understand that. I mean, I love how David starts Psalm 139 and ends at "Search me, oh God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts." Right? See if there's any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.

                                    And I think sometimes knowing I'm about to have a conversation that could bring up a lot of emotions, not only for me but for the other person, will sometimes force me to say, "Hold on Lord, I need to get this set ahead in my mind, because if we're going to have any resolution or come together on something, or if I'm going to be my best self, I really need to know what's going on in my heart. And sometimes I'm blind to that." So.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Yeah, and remember the show "King of Queens?" Do you remember that show? It's this funny, about a couple. He's a UPS driver, she's a corporate businesswoman. And for her work, she gets a Dictaphone that you put over your head and it records her words so that she doesn't have to sit and type. So, she's showing it to her husband, and then sets it down, but forgets to turn it off. They then have an argument. And later, the next morning, she wakes up to realize it has recorded their entire argument. And Chris, they are horrified at how they've been speaking to each other and the harshness of it.

                                    Well, unfortunately for most of us, we never get videotaped when we have disagreements, so we're going to have to rely on the input of other people, our kids, friends... and don't shoot the messenger if you get a message that makes you kind of uncomfortable or disappointed. And if you're going to ask somebody for their opinion, be open to their opinion. And it's not always going to be perfect. Right?

                                    So, the very first thing of starting this conversation is starting it, and putting a lot of thought into both your emotional state of mind. And I'm going to mention a couple, two suggestions from a wonderful group called the Harvard Negotiation Project. And they say this: Give an invitation to the conversation. So, an invitation would sound like this, Chris, you and me. I'd say, "Chris, I'd like to talk about how we do the podcast. Would that be something you'd be up for and would now be a good time?" Now, Chris can say no. Because right, you feel bad that I carry most of the podcasts, and right.

                                    By the way, if you keep saying no to the invitation, that's another problem. Right? That's avoidance. But I do think it's good to sit down with a person and to say, "Honey, I would like to talk about our finances or our kid's schedule. Is that something you would like to do, and is now a good time?" Right? That way, it allows a person to say, "Yes, I agree we need to talk about it, but honestly, now's not the right time because emotionally I'm not there. I'm tired." So extend an invitation and then set up a time that would be good, and then we can prepare for that spiritually.

Chris Grace:                  Yeah, no I love that because it gives the other person the opportunity to, especially if they have a tendency to feel flooded during that time, or concerned that this emotional topic or conversation's coming back and they can feel their heart rate. To know that they have an opportunity to wait or to have this conversation when things are going better or they're more in control of their emotions can really provide some of that. And I think, Tim, just providing that or even starting off that way, can start the conversation in a healthy way and, which is what we would call this ability to have good social intelligence. Right?

Tim Muehlhoff:             Yeah.

Chris Grace:                  I know how another person is working or feeling, and I'm taking that into account.

Tim Muehlhoff:             And don't sabotage the invitation. Here's how we could sabotage the invitation. Chris, I say to you, "Now Chris, I know you don't like to talk about this issue. Chris, I know that in the past you've gotten kind of defensive." You know what I mean? And can you not hear yourself saying that? "Honey, I know that this is really hard for you, this issue of honesty and transparency, but I think," and it's like, "Dude, you just ruined!"

Chris Grace:                  [inaudible 00:08:50]

Tim Muehlhoff:             "I know you're having trouble with lying, but I think we need to talk about," so, and I can hear myself doing that. Right? I know I've done that. You've ruined the invitation on the front end, because you're judging the person's motives. So, give a nice invitation.

                                    Now, the Harvard Negotiation Project says when you actually start, so a person accepts the invitation, you set a time, here's what they say. And Chris, I think this idea that they have, it's called the third story, is brilliant and really hard to pull off. So, if you and I, so let's say you and I did have a conversation about how we do the podcast. And you and I had both different opinions on what we should do. But we did it at Starbucks. We're sitting at our table, and I'm drinking a decaf vanilla latte, love those, can I just say? What's your drink?

Chris Grace:                  Just plain coffee. Sorry.

Tim Muehlhoff:             All right, so we're sitting there having this disagreement, and let's say there's a third person sitting right next to us listening. That person has nothing involved in this argument, right? They're just listening. The third story is, if we actually walked up to that third person and said, "Excuse me, could you summarize Tim and Chris' disagreement?" That person doesn't have a dog in the fight, so they do it fairly objectively. Now, they want you to do the third story, but the problem is if you and I are doing this privately, there is no third person. So, I become the third person. As much as possible, I try to fairly describe both of our takes on this issue. Right? Let's say, me and my wife, about finances. Right? Sit down with my wife and I would say, "Honey, I know the issue of finances is important to both of us, and I know that it's really important for you to save money, and that there's a lot of wisdom in having a nest egg and things like that. I'm frustrated because I do think that we could free up more money to do certain kind of projects." Right?

                                    Now, as much as possible, I'm doing the third story, but as I've tried as much as possible to recognize my spouse's perspective and the goodness of it. I mean I could say, "Noreen, I know that you're sort of a tightwad," you know what I mean?

Chris Grace:                  Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:             But, so the third story is, as much as possible, I fairly represent both of these issues, and then you ask your spouse or roommate, "Does that accurately summarize it?" Now, at that point my wife can jump in and say, "Honey, okay, I think you're simplifying things too much, and I would just simply add this." Okay. But hopefully they will say, "No, I think that was fair. Yeah, I think that was good." That's a nice way to start it. Hard to do, nice way to start it.

Chris Grace:                  It is, and I think Tim, staying in the area of the practical, really what you're doing in that point is something that in social psychology we would say, almost every conversation that you have is a transfer of affect. And so in just, literally in any conversation with almost anybody, we transfer, and what that means, the transfer affect means this, "I like you," or, "I don't like you," or, "I don't care about you."

Tim Muehlhoff:             That's good.

Chris Grace:                  And so what happens is as you do that, and as you present this to Noreen in this example, what you are also communicating by the gentleness of your doing, by the kindness in your voice, by being attuned, by taking all of these perspective taking just [inaudible 00:12:19], you're actually communicating, "Okay, you are of value to me. Your mood, your feelings on this, where you stand. It's important to me because I like you." And sometimes, there's even some non-verbal ways that we can identify this during that talk by just reaching out and holding their hand, or looking at them, or non-verbally saying to them, "Listen, you're still an important person to me." Or, "I just want you to know," and if it's a roommate, maybe there's not hand-holding, but maybe there's this sense of, "I just want you to know I really appreciate you or value you."

                                    And so, we do that sometimes non-verbally, and again, that gets that back to that idea of that transfer of affect that says, "I like you," and now, it cultivates this other person being willing to listen to you and to be heard in this area of conflict.

Tim Muehlhoff:             See, that's a nice addition to the third story, because, and we've all been there, right? "Heading into this, I think your perspective's whacked. I don't agree with any of it. I think it's," right? So, if I do that with that kind of attitude, you're going to pick up on it, right?

Chris Grace:                  I think that's right.

Tim Muehlhoff:             And so, but all right, so what do we say to a couple? And I have to say, at a marriage conference, Chris, a woman walked up to me, and her husband was right behind her, and she goes, "NASCAR is just stupid. Cars going around in a circle is just stupid, and my husband will spend hours just watching it, and hours going to it and spending money. It's just stupid."

Chris Grace:                  Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Okay. Well, that's a pretty, one, harsh startup. He's right there. Second, that's not even a shred of a third story, right? So, here's what I said to her. Tell me what you think about this. I said, "Okay, let's back up just a little bit. What do you think about companionship? What do you think about enjoying the presence of each other?" And she said, "Well yeah." I said, "Okay. Could that not happen during NASCAR?" And here's what she did: "Well, why does he get to pick it?" Okay, he doesn't get to pick everything. But maybe if you entered his world, and enjoyed the companionship of NASCAR, and actually wanted to learn about NASCAR, couldn't that be a positive? Right? But that's all affect, Chris. Right? And that is, do I like this person and care about his world, and should he enter her world? Absolutely he should enter her world. But it has to be a give and take proposition. But the attitude is what's sabotaging it.

Chris Grace:                  Yeah it is, it's an unfortunate, because obviously what she's saying with her non verbals, it borders on contempt, right?

Tim Muehlhoff:             Oh yeah.

Chris Grace:                  "This disgusts me, and because it disgusts me, you in essence are disgusting. Or you disgust me."

Tim Muehlhoff:             Yeah.

Chris Grace:                  And so now, you're already going to have, you can see where this is a harsh startup immediately and that's not going to go anywhere. I think your answer was brilliant to say, listen, to this particular time in which you could actually bend just a little bit and compromise in something, but look at the benefit of joining in with somebody in something you probably did when you were first getting to know this person in a dating relationship. You probably said, oh, I don't really know anything about NASCAR, but because this other person does and I like this other person, I'm going to go with him and hang out with them." And there's that equal kind of give and take and sharing there. So, I think it's a great opportunity that you presented her.

                                    We had a couple the same way. He loved sports and was not a Christian and just simply didn't get into all the Bible stuff that she was getting into in Church and all these events. And in fact, they had a conflict over that very thing, that he just simply was not able to participate with her in any of these spiritual things or religious things that she found important, right? And so, they came to us and asking this question, "Well, what do we do? Because he just doesn't get into going to Church, going to these events that I find are important, and we're losing connection with each other." And so, it just turned out that she was actually doing some amazing, just what you were sharing with this couple, she was compromising in a great way by doing this.

                                    They, bottom line, were sports fans as well, and so he loved anything related to Dallas or Texas football or sports or baseball or basketball. And so she knew that one of the best things she could do was to join him. And so I asked her, "Do you go to games with him?" She goes, "Oh yeah, all the time." She goes, "I know all the players, I know when they're on, I look at the scores. We have a conversation about that." And he's just sitting there smiling, like, "Yeah, that's really fun, we do it together."

                                    And then I challenged him and said, "By the way, are you have any ability, do you know what she does at Church?" "No, not really." "Do you ever read her Bible?" He said, "No." He says he called himself an atheist. I said, "Okay, so do you think it's important to her, this, what she's doing?" And he said, "Well yeah, it's really important to her." I said, "So, sports is important to you, and your wife is able to go to these events that even though she wouldn't naturally be drawn to this, she goes because you're interested and wants to make a connection with you." And he says yes. "I'll tell you what. Here's a challenge for you: I want you to go ahead and figure out, I want you to pick up that Bible and read it. And I want you to have her tell you a place to read, something to read, and then ask her some questions about it and connect with her." And he was like, "Well, I guess I can do that. It's just a book, right?"

Tim Muehlhoff:             That's right.

Chris Grace:                  Like, "Sure. Why not have this conversation with her?" And they just both really realized at that point that he really wasn't able to do this, Tim. He wasn't doing his part in this, and it was becoming very unfair. And so it actually, a little bit later we heard that he was doing this on a regular basis.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Oh, that's good.

Chris Grace:                  HE doesn't necessarily believe what he was reading, but at least had a connection point.

Tim Muehlhoff:             And that's, so this is a two-part podcast, the first part we talked about good will.

Chris Grace:                  Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:             You just described good will. I'm not going to describe NASCAR as stupid.

Chris Grace:                  Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Now, I may not see the value of it, and it's not my cup of tea, but I'm not going to describe something that's important to you as being stupid. So okay, so the invitation has been given, It's been accepted. Yeah, but you don't have a harsh startup, you have a kind startup. Now, do something called agenda setting, which is, let's talk about this issue. Let's talk about spending in the marriage. Okay, now there is without a doubt, that as you're talking about this, other issues are popping up all over the place.

                                    So, we have to practice what we call bracketing. Bracketing means this: As we're talking about finances, you're spouse says, "Yeah, but this all comes down to your schedule and the time you spend with your friends," and so hang on. That's valid? But right now, let's try to close the loop, so let's bracket that. That's going to be another conversation. But right now, can we just kind of keep on this issue? And let's try what we call to close the loop on this particular issue. So, legitimate issues are going to come up, no doubt. Some of it's because I'm being defensive and I'm trying to sidetrack. But let's bracket as much as possible and stay on agenda.

Chris Grace:                  I love that, Tim, because sometimes in these conversations, with roommates, with friends, with parents and children or with spouses, what ends us happening is one person wants to now, they finally get this opportunity, and they have a whole boatload or litany of things.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Yeah.

Chris Grace:                  And the other person just, it just overwhelms them. And so some, most people will actually probably be able to process much more effectively, and without feeling this overwhelming flooding of, just, oh things get overwhelmed, when you can limit it, or what you call bracket.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Yeah.

Chris Grace:                  When you bracket this to a single topic, and it doesn't mean that you don't talk about these other issues at some other point in the future.

Tim Muehlhoff:             That's right.

Chris Grace:                  But tonight, we're just going to talk about this issue.

Tim Muehlhoff:             We call it kitchen sinking, is the common term for this. And you get that. "I'm frustrated. And we don't have time to talk. And that's part of the problem. So, now we're going to talk, great. I'm going to share with you everything I've been thinking about in the last year and I actually came up within a [crosstalk 00:20:20].

                                    Okay, so you set the agenda. Now, somebody has to begin. Here's what I suggest. Let the other person begin. Say, "Hey, I want to hear your thoughts about this." The Book of Proverbs says, "A man who speaks before listening, it's folly and shame to that person." So, I would give the other person preference, and as that person talks, it's too early to be evaluating what they say. You want to listen to understand what they're saying. Don't challenge things. So, that's hard. That's a spiritual discipline right there, especially if there's information you think is incorrect, or that was harsh summary of what I do. But we've got to allow that person the freedom and the space to talk. Now, the next thing you do is ask clarifying questions and offer summary statements. Later, you're going to be able to talk about this, right? You're going to be able to say, "Hey, I did want to go back to when you said that. I'm not sure I totally agree with that." Because the reason you're doing this is what we call the rule of reciprocation. So, your spouse lets you talk about things now. When you let them talk about things, they'll have the same kind of freedom you afforded the other person. So, I would say somebody's got to start the conversation. I would let my roommate start it, because you're affording them good will and kindness.

Chris Grace:                  Well, I think that's really good, Tim. It's hard to do sometimes, because we have so much on our hearts and on our plates, [inaudible 00:21:41] just want to go.

Tim Muehlhoff:             I'm itching to go, baby. I'm itching to go.

Chris Grace:                  And that's where James 119 comes into play, right? "Everyone needs to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry." And it's a great opportunity to go, "Okay, hold on here. I really want to listen in." And by listening and hearing the other person and knowing their hurt, really is going to counteract the harsh startups. It's also going to get to a point where the other person feels like, "Okay, they're playing fair with me." And this relationship repair attempt is going on. But also then, it provides you a good opportunity to exercise something that many of us don't do very well, and that is listen. So, great.

Tim Muehlhoff:             I zoned out for a little bit what you were saying, but so now you're listening to this person, right? And our minds are just wired that I'm picking up on everything I disagree with that you just said. Right? "I think that was an over exaggeration. I don't think that was right. I don't think we overspent that weekend." Right? I'm just laser on the things we disagree. I would not bring it in yet. Here's what I would do: I force my students to do this. Find two or three places you agree. Right? You got those five ready to go that you disagree,, But then I'll say, "Okay, all right, I agree with that. I think that was fair. Yes. And I also agree that I think finances is a priority. And yes, I do agree that we need to have some kind of budget." Now, in the back of your mind you might be thinking, "But not that kind of budget! But no, generally speaking, yeah, [inaudible 00:23:13] and I think saving is good. Not that kind of," right? But don't start there. All of calm theory can be summarized by simply saying start from points of agreement and work towards points of disagreement.

                                    Sometimes what we've already said is, we just want to move to the disagreement, that's, live with the agreement with each other, right? And then you can move on to another part of the conversation, but man, live in that commonality, right?

Chris Grace:                  I think that's great, Tim. So, finding that point of agreement even id it's small, even if it's nothing huge, it can have some pretty powerful effects in that the other person can feel hurt even in a small point of agreement that maybe you are able to, so what you're saying sometimes is, "When I come home and I turn on the TV, that you feel like the TV has become more important to me than you. Is that what you're saying?" Now, I may not agree that the TV is more important to me than my partner, but all's I did is I found that one point that says, "What you're saying then is that the TV, you're feeling like the TV is replacing me. Is that what you're saying?"

Tim Muehlhoff:             And Chris, do you see how we're just kind of repeating ourselves? This is all attitude. Right? We're not teaching techniques. We're saying if your heart's in the right place and your attitude's in the right place, I think this conversation's in going to go well. But now, and since we're wrapping this up, let's say this: So, you listen to your spouse or roommate. You find commonality. And now you have a decision to make. Because here's what I say to couples. What's your goal for this conversation? Let's mention two different goals: A relational goal and a topic goal. A topic goal is we're resolving a topic. Okay? "You think I'm a massive overspender. I think you're a massive stingy saver, and we got to figure this out. So, this conversation, we're wrapping it up. Right? Somebody's going to win here, and we're going to do something right now. That's a topic goal. Which is we're going to debate each other and hopefully there's going to be a winner, and hopefully it's me.

                                    It might be that you pick a relational goal. Which means, "Hey, usually when we talk about finances it doesn't go well, and we get defensive with each other and voices raised a little bit." Guess what? It didn't happen. I'm going to leave it there. I'm going to say, "Hey, you know what? You've given me a lot to think about, and by the way, thank you, I thought this was a good conversation. It was good." And your spouse might even say, "Yeah, but we haven't heard what you want." "Yeah, we can get to that. You've given me a lot to think about."

                                    Now listen, this is attitude again. If the only reason you're doing this, because you know what? This is a tactic, right? I'm manipulation this, "I don't give a rip what you just said, and I don't agree with any of it. I'm just going to fake it, because now you'll me more open." Guess what? That's manipulative communication right there. So, to say, "You've really given me some good things to think about. Can we do this again? And I would like to offer some of my thoughts, but I need to sit with what you said. It was good." I think that's a nice way to leave it if your goal is, this was so good for us to have this. I'm going to leave it right here before we get to our big points of disagreement.

Chris Grace:                  I think that's good, Tim. I think what it does is, and realizing, I think, what we've recognized too, is that there are very few conflicts that ever get resolved completely and specifically, because we disagree about so many different things. Gottman talks about 69% of all of our conflicts are going to be irresolvable, that is, but it's not about the conflict, [crosstalk 00:26:47] but really what it's about is how we manage and navigate this, and what you've just said the way you're managing this particular conflict is putting a value on the relationship more than on necessarily resolving this conflict. And when you do that, that's the beginning of maintaining a connection with another person and keeping this at a relational level that says to them, "You're important to me. I value you. I like you. And I'm willing to, in some respects, with humility, weigh and count what's going on with you as very important. And by doing that, I am going to express to you the importance of this relationship, and sometimes that requires me to be quick to listen and slow to speak."

Tim Muehlhoff:             And the worst mistake a listener could do is not respect the fact that this was a two-part series. Right? Because we're Americans. We love the pragmatic, right? So, somebody could say, "Oh, I'm just going to listen to part two, because that's the good stuff." And we're saying, "No, no, no. I promise you it's not going to work unless you listen to part one, because of all the attitude, kindness kind of stuff." So, "Winsome Persuasion" these last two podcasts, a book I wrote with Rick Langer called "Winsome Persuasion," but do not skip part one.

                                    Yeah, because that heart issue and your reputation and kindness really is going to set up some of the quick things that we talked about in this section.

Chris Grace:                  Yeah, it's a great book. If you haven't yet gotten to read it, Tim, I've just valued what you and Rick have shared in that. It's really helpful in so many ways. It's so practical. But it's also so timely.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Oh yeah.

Chris Grace:                  I mean, given the state of political discourse in this country, some of the other topics that people have legitimate reasons to disagree on, it brings it home. And you guys have done a great job. By the way, tell people, they can find it on Amazon.

Tim Muehlhoff:             That's right.

Chris Grace:                  They can go different places and get the book.

Tim Muehlhoff:             They can go to my website,, just no space between Tim and Muehlhoff, and good luck spelling Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:                  Good luck.

Tim Muehlhoff:             And good luck. I pray for you.

Chris Grace:                  Be great. Well hey, thanks for joining us on another Art of Relationships Podcast, and Tim, thanks so much for just sharing some of those thing that you've learned and putting that together. It's very valuable.

Tim Muehlhoff:             Thank you, Chris, and as always, great to be with you.