Teach your athletes to have hard conversations

written by Erica Quam

An important element to building a team is creating an environment where constructive conversations can happen. How can you foster an environment where:

  • people can voice their opinions without the fear of being judged, criticized, or excluded
  • people can have different opinions and respect one another in the end

No matter what age group you work with - from kids to adults - this takes work!

First, it requires trust within your group. People need to trust their teammates before they'll speak honestly and not feel threatened.

Next, once you've established a foundation of trust, give people the tools - and the words - to have difficult conversations. You actually have to model what that looks like!

People don't like conflict and will avoid it at all costs. We keep ideas and opinions to ourselves - as a self-protection. So we can fit in and belong instead of stand out and be excluded.

There's a time when avoidance no longer works. There's a tipping point...when a conflict has simmered over time and then...BOOM...it suddenly comes to a head. 

When emotions run high, it can be super confusing. Some conflicts seem to come out of the blue. If you step back and really think about it...there were other probably plenty of clues that this "crux" was coming: ...passive-aggressive comments mumbled under someone's breath...or colluding with teammates whispering behind someone's back to rally support. Instead of  being direct and honest...drama ensues: people take sides, emotions run high...and "the issue" (that is usually small) grows exponentially. Sound familiar?

Give your athletes a framework to guide these difficult conversations - in advance of the conflict. Establish language they can practice and draw upon later. 

Have your team practice with something that's positive first. Then you can apply it towards a conflict that's come up in the past.

THE EVENT: Gina called Debbie for her birthday over the summer

Debbie to Gina: "Gina, when you took the time to call me over the summer for my birthday, I thought it was so kind of you (thoughts). I felt grateful to hear from you (feelings). I want to stay connected with you (intentions). After our call, I just felt so warm inside (sensations)."

THE EVENT: Gina talks about Debbie behind her back.

Debbie to Gina: "When Sara told me what you said about me, my mind was racing, my palms were sweaty, and I literally couldn't breathe (sensations). I thought maybe I had done something wrong (thoughts). At first, I felt angry (feelings). Now I just feel sad (feelings)...because I thought we were friends (thoughts). I want you to come directly to me if you have something to say (intentions). What I really want is to hang out more...like we used to (intentions)."

Gina to Debbie: "I thought you didn't want to spend time with me anymore since you started dating Rob (thoughts). I feel sad because I've lost a friend (feelings). Then, I felt pissed and wanted to do something to hurt you back (truer feelings). I want you to be happy and have a boyfriend (intentions)...and I guess what I really want is for you to spend time with me too (intentions)."

The key to the conversation is that while one person speaks, the other person listens. Each person takes a turn. Be there to help and facilitate. Then have a quick discussion afterwards. It may take a couple of times back and forth to actually get to the heart of the issue.

Sure - the activity is contrived - and it'll be a little awkward as they walk through it the first time. Acknowledge that by keeping it light and fun! In the heat of a real conflict it may not be realistic to stop and look at this framework...AND just talking through it a time or two can give your athletes the words to work through a future conflict more constructively. 

If nothing else, this framework will help people become more aware of their own thoughts, feelings, wants, & sensations. 

Most of the time people will find when you slow down and listen to both sides, you can develop a better sense of understanding of where the other person is coming from and maybe the issue can be resolved.

Did this give you any ideas of how you could use this in your life?? Share one example of how you could apply this in the comments below.