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By James Stewart October 21, 2019

The Art of Difficult Conversations

I have something to confess: I’m not too good at having difficult conversations. I never actually came out to my brother; I let my parents tell him and waited for him to approach me about it. When I was first truly struggling with my mental health, instead of reaching out to my friends for support, I would post disturbing and ominous pictures on my private Instagram page that only they followed, and wait for them to reach out to me. And the thing is, I’m not alone. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about techniques in social situations, about the way we use them to navigate conversation and interaction with other people, and particularly about the ways we struggle to discuss serious topics. To most of us, many social techniques are second nature. We introduce ourselves to someone like so, we inquire about certain shared topics like so. Although for certain people even these basic small interactions can be scary and confusing, for the most part, these are areas of familiarity in which our brains slide through techniques on autopilot. As I’ve found, the trouble arises when we need to have rarer, more tough conversations. How to come out to someone. How to tell someone they’ve hurt you. How to explain to someone that you’re suicidal. Repetition is what molds technique into its final form, and with the lack of experience comes the lack of knowledge of how to proceed.

When we think “technique”, we often think science, math, step-by-step instructions. A “technical” CEGEP program is thought to be one that will give you concrete skills to apply in the workforce. However, we know that technique means more than that. A technique is any form of how-to knowledge, and so it comes into play during every conversation and social interaction we have.

Nowadays, we have the internet, which makes things a little different. I once saw a meme that said “no matter what you’re going through, just remember there was someone on yahoo answers going through the exact same thing in 2011.”  We can google “how to come out” or “how to break up with someone” a million times, but none of that research makes up the real thing. We won’t know which technique works for us until we’re in the process of trying to apply it ourselves. Human interaction is different from many scientific disciplines in that the variables will be different every time; every human being is different, and so are their reactions and responses to what you say.

If I can be so bold, I think that this process of social technique creation a big part of what living and the human experience is about: we find techniques to navigate the world and the people around us, and then we have new experiences and have to remake these techniques all over again. That’s the thing about a technique—it is a process that works, for a time, but inevitably someone will find a better or more thorough one. It is a continual process of learning and adapting to interact with the world and people around us, and the momentary comfort that for now, this works.

About the author

James is a 2nd year student in Liberal Arts.

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