Negotiating Difficult Conversations: Understanding the 3 Levels of Communication
“Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” James 1:19
How many times have you left a difficult conversation and replayed the scenario in your mind over and over again? Sometimes, more often than we’d like, we have to engage in stressful conversations. Those sensitive exchanges can hurt us or haunt us in ways no other kind of communication does. Unfortunately, these type of exchanges are unavoidable in life.
Conversations are a primary way we relate to others. Whether it be in marriage, business, politics, theology, over skype, social media or the phone, human conversations are precious commodities. They can either connect us to people or alienate us from them. Understanding how discussions work and what can make them break down is important. In cultural engagement, conversations are a primary means of relational commerce.
That is where understanding triphonics comes in handy. This term refers to something playing on three sound channels at once. That’s what most conversations are—discussions operating on three channels at the same time.
One of the core elements of conversation involves the three levels to work simultaneously. What gets us off track is that often we only think consciously about one of those levels. We tend to focus on what we are “broadcasting” to others, and in doing so, we miss much of what often is going on. We are taught to debate and win our arguments, but we may need to recalibrate our goals in difficult conversations. So let’s look at the triphonics of conversation and how our awareness of them can help us in our conversations, especially with those difficult dialogues that life in a fallen world often compels us to have.
Level 1: Topic at Hand
The first level is the topic at hand. It is the one we tend to focus on the most—the object of discussion and our contribution to the subject matter. Just like Jack Webb on the old TV show, Dragnet, this is about the content of our conversations, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Here is where we concentrate our attention—communicating what we see and why—often with a goal of persuading. In this level, we engage with the purpose of establishing assertions, garnering our evidence, and making the case. When we set up a discussion this way, the path leads to a debate versus a conversation.
Now in engagement, there often is a case to be made, and the rationale for the position taken is crucial. However, so are the relational elements of what is going on along with what stands underneath the positions we take. In other words, tone matters. The three levels remind us that things are going on in our conversations other than the facts and the topic. Sometimes those other levels are drivers in the conversation, an important point to understand.
Level 2: Emotions, Perceptions, and Judgments
The second level is a combination of emotions, perceptions, and judgments at work as we speak within our discussions. It is here where conversations can get murky because people will look at the same scenario and read it differently. At this level, we see a strange brew of emotions and perspectives that work as filters in what we see and how we arrange the “facts.” Sometimes we promote these elements to level one, but they may not belong there. We need to assess them on their own merits.
Often discussions taking place here are where the mix of emotional drivers and differing perceptions require a need not only to advocate, but to listen to the conversation partner for why differences exist. A core goal in good conversation is understanding these differences and why they are there. That is different than the assessment of who is right or wrong or what mix of right or wrong is going on.
Oftentimes we confuse these two distinct categories and jump to assessing before understanding. This premature leap often creates a misunderstanding in what is happening, so that progress in the conversation ceases. For example, when my wife complains about my not helping her enough or not caring about her, my instinct is to get defensive, defend myself (emotional level) and feel attacked as not being a good husband (identity level). My response ought to probe why she feels this way and what I can do better to help her. Being aware of our own emotions, perceptions, and judgments helps us in these conversations, especially difficult ones.
Unfortunately, what we do is seek to mind-read the other person at these levels and even speak to their presence (“You are angry with me so much of the time”), while ignoring what is going on with us at the same level. Note how sometimes our reactions may be about something else that was unresolved. That emotive leap can short circuit a good conversation by placing blame for breakdown on another (often for other reasons than the topic) while ignoring what may be going on within us. This move is especially problematic because let’s face it; we don’t make good prophets. So we should hesitate to go in a direction that tries to attribute motive to another and deflects the conversation in the process. Being open to “owning our junk” means making an effort to listen to what is being said to us.
Level 3: Identity and Self-Understanding
The third level is how our identity and self-understanding is impacted by what we are discussing. This is the deepest and trickiest level, but it is also always in play in conversations. It asks, “In this conversation, what is at stake for me and how am I seen as a result? How am I impacted in my soul by what is going on? How is this playing out? Am I looking bad or good in this?”
Our questions aren’t often shared and yet can be what is directing how we respond and why. When we put up phasor shields in reaction to comments, we often short circuit a conversation that has some potential for learning. Often we are not aware this is going on because we are too busy simply reacting with our shields up in full throttle.
Think about what happens as we engage, especially on difficult topics. If you are like me, we not only are listening, but we formulate our responses in reaction to the discussion. Often it is in defense of our position. The one element that is often missing in this mode of conversation is curiosity and actual engagement with the other person about what is driving them to express themselves. Three voices (triphonics) are in play in us at different levels, and they can drown out our ability to listen and connect to the other person in the conversation. We fail to make a real effort to understand them first before engaging in any problem solving about the conversation we are having.
So what can help us in these difficult moments of conversation?
- In difficult discussions seek to be more curious as to why the person thinks differently without trying to be a prophet about the other person’s head. Let him or her speak and take the responses as sincere. Avoid the blame game, venting or dismissive labeling of the response.
- Pay attention to the three levels within the conversational perspective that might be getting in the way, but also seek to understand where the other person is coming from and why. This is what it means to “own your junk.”
- Be curious and ask questions not to defeat the other person, but to move toward mutual understanding about where the differences and tension points are or why there is a disagreement.
- Seek to understand before assessing. There will be time for assessment down the road. It is best to pursue it once everyone can agree on the issues.
- Learn to paraphrase in the difficult moments in a way that makes the conversation partner say, “Yep, you understand me.” Paraphrasing means interpreting and translating. It is rephrasing what another has said for the sake of understanding. Ask the other person to do the same, so mutual understanding and listening are achieved.
What does paying attention to triphonics and to the other person accomplish in a conversation? The answer is short. It communicates respect for the other person and allows the potential for a better exchange. It establishes connection as the real reasons for differences surface in ways both participants can recognize. When people perceive that we care about and understand them, they open up more and are in a better position to listen to what we have to say. It may also open us up to learn and grow by listening to the things we need to hear as well.
When I discuss this recalibration, there’s one key question I always get. “What if I try this but the other person is not there and just wants to duke it out in debate? What do I do then?” The approach in this situation is to try and reframe the conversation in a direction that pushes toward the curiosity door. Ask questions and invite them to ask about something that was said. Encourage them to paraphrase or offer to paraphrase what they have said. In other words, redirect the conversation in a way that walks through the listening door searching to be curious.
If there is push for debate, to assess, and make judgments, ask them to defer those questions until there’s a mutual agreement of understanding for each other’s position. Commit to getting to that stage of conversation, but only after there’s an understanding of each other’s position and why it is working that way. Having this kind of a conversation takes discipline, but it also can pay rich dividends if both can arrive at an agreement and honor the sequence of understanding each other first, and then assessing what to do about it.
Difficult conversations don’t need to be discussions to fight through; they may become moments where iron really does sharpen iron. Staying aware of the triphonics of conversations may just be the anvil we need to turn difficult dialogue into revealing learning. Seeking mutual understanding about the conversation first and then moving to assessment may provide a way that arrives to a better destination. In all of it, we need to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
About the Contributors
Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock has earned recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), is the author of over 40 books, including well-regarded commentaries on Luke and Acts and studies of the historical Jesus, and work in cultural engagement as host of the seminary’s Table Podcasts. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) from 2000–2001, served as a consulting editor for Christianity Today, and serves on the boards of Wheaton College and Chosen People Ministries. His articles appear in leading publications. He is often an expert for the media on NT issues. Dr. Bock has been a New York Times best-selling author in nonfiction and is elder emeritus at Trinity Fellowship Church in Dallas. When traveling overseas, he will tune into the current game involving his favorite teams from Houston—live—even in the wee hours of the morning. Married for over 40 years to Sally, he is a proud father of two daughters and a son and is also a grandfather.