Conversations come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. We often struggle because we have different views of "how serious" any given conversation is or should be. Let's take a look at what this often looks like and how you can help get each other connected together better. The goal is to connect more meaningfully to reduce fights and increase the chances you each hear what means the most to each other. Not every conversation is meant to be significant or serious, but when it is, the following can help.

Conversational Level or Depth of Meaning

"Quality" conversations are or become more personal. Connecting "current events" to your personal history and experience can help the other person see things "below the surface." If the other person struggles with engaging, help them talk about stuff that might be similar for them. This may help them get connected to their own feelings and then see things more personally, too.

If you are struggling with attempts to keep "fixing it," remind the other person you're not looking for help or advice right now. Tell them you just want them to understand how you feel or how it looks from your side. If you're trying to get them to talk about it from their perspective, ask directly how they feel or what it means to them. You might have to work together to find actual feeling words. People connect over feelings and meanings not facts.

At the personal level you may start to talk about how the relationship is affected or impacted by your experience. As you move deeper toward the Meaningful level, you will become more open about the feelings and meaning that your experience has helped create here and now.

Impersonal Level

Facts, Details, Who, What, Where, When, The News. The conversation is superficial or only appreciated and thought about at the "surface" level. You might as well be strangers.

Personal Level

My take/view/story. Stuff about me, my history and experiences. The "public" version of you. Limited info about feelings or meaning. The things you'd shared with almost anyone you knew decently well. I may not let you into my life very far, but you have some context for what I mean or care about.

Meaningful Level

How things really feel or felt. What it really means or meant to you. "Where I'm at." "Where I'm coming from." This is the stuff you don't share with too many people or even perhaps anyone at all. This is deeply and intensely personal. You might feel you're taking a risk.

Context Level

You notice and respond to the conversation itself. You want to make the other person aware of what you think might be happening in the give and take of the moment. Often this is to handle something that might derail the conversation. Noticing good things (especially when historically you've struggled) builds safety and rapport.

Conversational Safety

People pull back, ignore or try to avoid talking about things that are in some sense "unsafe." I can feel unsafe because I might expect you to get mad or hurt. I might expect you to think more negatively about me if I even mention something. I might not want to feel all the things I might feel if I do, either. There are many reasons, many kinds of reasons, I won't or don't talk about some things with you or someone else. Some of us avoid talking about important things in general, and some of us want to talk about them too readily.

If you and someone else struggle to talk about "issues" or you simply feel like you can't "connect," some sort "safety" is probably in the way. You can help create safety and even rebuild safety in conversations by thinking about two key things: "Mutual Respect" and "Mutual Purpose."

Mutual Respect and Purpose

Safety often depends on two people feeling that the other respects them, even when they might be upset. If you tend to feel inadequate, not good enough or easily feel judged, respect can easily feel missing or is easy lost in a conversation. If you feel harsh responses are likely, you don't feel respected.

When we're respecting each other, we treat each other like adults. We use plain, simple language. We ask questions to understand, not accuse or belittle. Respect is about treating the other like a valuable or loved person we want to understand not punish.

If it feels like the other person is becoming defensive, back up slightly and remind them that you care, and that you want to understand. You want to repair or build things together. You're not interested in accusing, punishing or saying bad things about them. Honest apologies and reassurance can help restore or reinforce someone's perception of respect. Your conversations will always be limited by how respected each of you feels, not by how much you may be trying to respect the other.

Another way to build safety is by finding a point of mutual or shared purpose. What is it you both want? What can you both agree on already? This can become the goal you're both trying to move toward or come back to in the conversation.

Knowing When to Stop

When you are still learning how to manage safety in a conversation, you need to appreciate when the best strategy to build safety is to just take a break. Timeouts are needed when either of you are experiencing too much "fight or flight." When your bodies start reacting more strongly to the conversation, you both need to understand that trying to be more "rational" isn't going to help. Your best opportunities to build safety already passed you by. Work on your mutual purpose to have better conversations in the future now. You can do it in those moments by taking a 30 to 60 minute timeout to allow your bodies to quiet down and your minds to clear. You will get better at all of this if you intend to and keep practicing.


Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2nd Ed.