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  • Ricka Robb Kohnstamm

Why is it so hard to stay open and present during difficult conversations?

When you are in conversation with people you don't know well or don't care that much, you may find that it is relatively easy to engage and disengage without a big emotional reaction...

Perhaps you slide into conversation with a coworker or one of your children's friends about something that is super challenging but then slide back out without a lot of residual affect. You go on with your day, continue with your plans with only an occasional additional thought. What they say matters, but actually not that much. You don't feel pulled off course.

But when you engage in difficult conversations with people you care deeply about or have a long history with, it's a different story. The grandmother who deflects, repeatedly, when what you really need is empathy. The hiring physician who makes judgmental statements, when what you are searching for is agency. Or the unaware sister who makes every conversation about her - doesn't she realize that consideration of you and your world is important, as well?

We all have a choice, always. We can shut down, turn away, say hurtful words, or raise our voice in frustration. The outcome is disconnection, at least in the moment.

Or we can chose to sit in the muck, listen deeply, take in what is happening within ourselves (and perhaps the other person), and pause until our brains come back online. When we chose this course, we are choosing to deepen connection - perhaps with the other person, but certainly with ourselves.

And then decide what to do next.

Staying open and present is the medicine that nurtures our connection with people we care about - our children, our partners, our business associates, our friends, our community. It also deepens self-respect and relationship with ourselves.

How do you stay open and present during these types of difficult conversations?

Consider these three things...

Notice the internal dialogue. Notice what is happening in your body - are your shoulders tightening? Is your heart beating faster? Are you remembering to breathe? Use that as information to help you identify what the conversation is stirring up in you...

  • I am afraid my grandmother doesn't know me at all.

  • I am insecure about how you feel about me.

  • I am nervous you think I am wishy washy.

Listen to the external dialogue. Turn from the internal dialogue to the external. What is the other person actually saying? What does their body language say? Repeat back what you are hearing for confirmation.

  • I'm hearing you say that you want to show me what you wore to church, Grandma, but what I think I really hear is that you are uncomfortable in this conversation about my recent loss.

  • I'm hearing you explain to me what you are thinking and I am listening. I really am. I don't understand it. Would you be willing to tell me more?

  • I hear that you are looking to add someone to your department who can commit 110% to their career, is that right?

Own the storyline you are filling in. When we are in conversation with people we feel close to or have known a long time, we have many more storylines to fill in... they may or may not be true, but they are our perceptions, our thoughts, our stories and we fill them in willy nilly. Notice. But don't take them as fact without confirmation.

  • The story I tell myself is that Grandma doesn't take me seriously because I don't have a big career.

  • The story I tell myself is that I am not safe in this family because we see the world so differently.

  • The story I tell myself is that I will never find a position that allows me to balance meaningful work where I can work at top of degree with caring for my young children.

As you practice staying open and present, particularly during difficult conversations with people you care about, notice what happens for you and with the other person.

Actions, aligned with values, support optimal health.


Hello, I'm Ricka.

Ricka Kohnstamm Executive & Physician Coach Profile Photo

I'm a Nationally Board Certified (NBC-HWC) Integrative Health and Wellbeing Coach. I specialize in working with physician leaders, corporate leaders, non-profit executives and their families to navigate complex work and personal issues so they can strengthen their relationships, heal, and feel hopeful about the future again. 



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