2020 is truly a year for difficult conversations. Rates of polarization in the U.S. seem to be constantly on the rise, and frustrations spurred by the pandemic have led to a widespread breakdown in clear, collaborative and constructive conversations in our society.
Inspired by the Difficult Conversations Workshops at our national symposium, let’s explore how a little psychological concept called “self-distancing” can lead to huge positive benefits in difficult conversations you may be having with your own family, friends, colleagues and neighbors:
What Is Self-Distancing?
There are two basic sides involved in almost any interpersonal encounter: self-immersed perspectives and self-distanced perspectives. Simply put, a self-immersed perspective keeps your mind focused on internal factors: your own needs, wants, interests and desires. On the flip side, a self-distanced perspective accounts for one’s own interests but views them as similarly important to the interests of other parties in a conversation.
With this in mind, self-distancing (not to be confused with this year’s popular phrase, “social distancing”) refers to processing negative emotions or events in adaptive (healthy) ways.
While it can be immensely challenging (and perhaps bruising to our egos) to back down or listen to others when we’re absolutely convinced that we’re “right,” doing so is a crucial step towards preserving our relationships with others and cultivating meaningful conversation climates. But the benefits aren’t primarily for other people; according to an article published in Greater Good Magazine (backed by the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center), self-distancing offers a host of personal benefits, including:
- Greater capacity for adaptive self-reflection (as opposed to maladaptive self-reflection, which magnifies negative emotions instead of constructively processing them)
- Reduction in aggressive, angry thoughts and behaviors
- Greater ability to make rational, clear-headed decisions
So how can you successfully self-distance from negative emotions without forgoing that difficult conversation entirely? Let’s see what the research has to say:
Change Your Self-Talk
Researchers have suggested that changing the way you talk to yourself (sometimes referred to as “intrapersonal communication”) can be a powerful mechanism in which you emotionally distance yourself from tense interpersonal interactions and/or maladaptive self-reflections and ruminations.
One of the best self-talk strategies involves changing the pronouns in which you refer to yourself. Specifically, referring to yourself in the second-person “you” pronouns (as though you’re speaking with a friend) or third-person (he/she/they or your name) can help you constructively assess negative thoughts and process upsetting emotions when engaging in difficult conversations with others.
Embrace Wise Reasoning
Another strategy for reigning in your emotions to more effectively engage in difficult conversations with others involves developing your wise reasoning skills. There are four central tenets to wise reasoning, including: (1) recognizing the limits of your own knowledge (intellectual humility), (2) recognizing and appreciating larger issues involved, (3) sensitivity to changes in social relationships, and (4) a willingness to compromise or meaningfully consider other opinions besides your own.
Wise reasoning is important for self-distancing because it encourages us to recognize and accept the fact that we don’t have all the answers and that our opinions are just that: subjective opinions. Not objective reality. Once you can genuinely accept the possibility that you could be wrong (or simply unaware of information that may change your mind), you’ll be in a much better position to take other people’s concerns more seriously and keep your emotions in check when dealing with an interpersonal conflict.