Everyone knows that lawyers love to argue. In fact, it’s our job. While most people shy away from difficult conversations, we and other professionals see the extraordinary opportunities that lie within conflict. Confronting something head-on, like negotiating a raise or solving a dispute with a coworker, will likely feel uncomfortable and be tempting to avoid. To the contrary, however, having these difficult conversations will actually help your relationships and increase your level of trust. I learned the nuances of this practice while becoming a lawyer, but going to law school is hardly necessary for you to argue like a professional, or perfect “the triumph of dialogue.”
In fact, I learned this valuable skill from my grandparents, Art & Adella. They were married for 65 years, and these “Depression-Era kids” maintained their marriage all the while on opposite ends of the political spectrum. My grandfather was a staunch, tow-the-party-line Republican, and my grandmother was a women’s-rights-supporting Democrat. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but their marriage withstood several wars, the Civil Rights Movement, Roe v. Wade, and Reaganomics.
So how did they do it? They didn’t shy away from speaking their minds, nor from listening to the opposing viewpoint. I can recall some of the discussions they’d have over lunch with Paul Harvey on the radio in the background. My grandmother would calmly state her opinion, then continue to listen to the program and my grandfather’s commentary. They rarely agreed in the end, but I could tell that each felt heard and understood. Differences were acknowledged, and they continued to offer perspectives that the other had not yet considered. Even as a child, I witnessed first-hand how their love and marriage were able to prosper despite their differences – perhaps because of their differences.
Having difficult conversations is not about enjoying conflict, but rather recognizing the need for discussion and finding satisfaction in understanding the other side. We lawyers do this every day —explaining to clients the uphill battles of pursuing their claim; discussing potential sentencing ranges with victims; and offering defendants plea deals rather than taking cases to trial. Working in appellate law, my job focuses on research, and I engage in difficult conversations when having to explain my office’s inability to prosecute based on errors made by others.
Starting these conversations is rarely comfortable for either party, but they reduce confusion and offer solace in the long run. So we sit down and talk through a whole host of options, and when we reach that ultimate compromise, we can all walk away understanding the reasons for that particular outcome. We may not always “win,” but we trust in the system, and in each other.
I had to use this skill a few years back when I invited my grandmother, a then 92-year-old widow, to live with me. I knew it would be a challenge, but I didn’t anticipate all the ways my life would change. Legally blind, I offered what I could to her to make her feel safe and comfortable, knowing full well that she had no desire to ever live in a nursing home. During the five years that we lived together, we had many awkward talks – asking if my fiancé could move in with us as we prepared for a new phase in our lives; discussing necessary legal forms, like her will and power of attorney documents; and explaining her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the possible treatment options. As hard as it was, each heart-to-heart began from a place of honesty and was based in a trust in each other, with the ultimate desire to honor both of our wishes for the future.
The hardest conversation we had involved her end-of-life care. Though I wasn’t ready for the heartbreak as I stood at my grandmother’s hospital bed, I knew she was at peace knowing that I would honor her wishes as she took her last breaths. It gave me peace of mind, too.
When starting a difficult conversation, value not only the outcome of the discussion, but also the exchange itself. Instead of hearing the word “no,” or otherwise “losing” the argument, understand the other person’s viewpoint and recognize how you have broken down other barriers, just by having the conversation. Discovering the “why” behind these interactions will allow you to move forward regardless of the immediate outcome — and you can make an informed decision about what to do next.