Your Conversation Compass
November 28, 2022
When someone starts talking about a situation that involves difficult emotions, the individual on the receiving end of the conversation chimes in lickety-split.  They start talking without first getting a sense of the direction the conversation should be headed.

During this article, I’ll be reaching into my big bag of emotional intelligence tricks to pull out a Tiny Tweak called Your Conversation Compass.

Engaging with emotional intelligence includes the ability to offer people the right support when they are navigating difficult emotions.  This Tiny Tweak includes a simple question you can ask to ensure the conversation stays on track and heads in the right direction.

Let’s get started with this week’s true-to-life story.

The Story
Claudia and Rob have been married for close to 20 years.  Like most marriages, they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs.  The past eight years, however, included mostly downs.  Claudia wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel, but Rob felt differently.  Two years ago, he filed for divorce.

Claudia and Rob share three children.  Their twin boys are 14 and their daughter is 12.  The house they once shared was sold and they are scheduled to close a week from today.  Rob moved most of his belongings several months ago, but Claudia has been busy packing over the past two weeks.  She loved her home and she is sad about leaving.  She is also concerned about her children transitioning to the family’s “new normal.”

Today is Saturday and the twins are playing in a soccer tournament.  Claudia and her long-time friend Mary, who also has a son playing in the tournament, are standing on the sidelines watching the game and chatting.

Mary says “So Claudia, this is a big week for you!  How’s everything going?”

Claudia let’s out a long sigh and says, “Well, I can certainly think of happier days.  You know how much I loved our house and I’m worried about the kids.  And I’m also thinking about…”

Before Claudia could finish her sentence, Mary chimed in and said “You need to stop thinking about how much you’re going to miss your house.  Yeah, it was a nice house, but it wasn’t that great.  Your new place is going to be wonderful!  And stop worrying about the kids.  Some counseling might be helpful but I’m sure they will be fine!  You think too much.  If you stop worrying, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot better.”

Then Mary’s phone rang.  “Hold on” she said, “I’ve got to take this.”  She turned around, walked a few steps away, and started talking to the caller.

Claudia is left standing quietly and again, she lets out a long sigh.  She knew Mary was well-intended, but she felt worse than she had before they started talking.

Your Conversation Compass
Have you ever gone hiking in the woods and gotten yourself turned around?  If so, you know first-hand the value of a good compass.  It’s a very useful tool to help orient yourself to the right direction.  Without a compass, you could waste a lot of energy, head down an erroneous path, and ultimately end up in the wrong place.

When someone starts talking about something they are experiencing that includes difficult emotions like Anger, Fear, Anxiety, or Shame, it’s not uncommon for the person on the receiving end of the conversation to quickly chime in.  The concern, however, is whether or not they are chiming in with input that steers the conversation in the right direction.

This week’s Tiny Tweak is called Your Conversation Compass.  Here’s how it works.  By asking a simple question before you respond to someone who is experiencing difficult emotions, you can ensure you are headed in the right direction.

Here’s the question.  “Is this person sharing these details because they want to vent or because they want to problem solve?”  It’s that simple.  And if you don’t know the answer, just ask.  You may also find the acronym VoPS is a helpful reminder for remembering Vent or Problem Solve.

When someone is experiencing a situation that includes difficult emotions, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a problem that needs to be solved.  Perhaps they just want the opportunity to vent.  It can, after all, be very helpful to blow off a little steam.

In Claudia’s case, there wasn’t a specific problem she needed to solve.  Although Mary was well-intended, her contributions to the conversation backfired.  Instead of helping Claudia to feel better, Mary’s input resulted in Claudia feeling worse.

Let’s revisit the exchange they were having only this time, let’s consider how things could have played out if Mary had incorporated her Conversation Compass.

After Claudia let’s out her long sigh and said, “Well, I can certainly think of happier days.  You know how much I loved our house and I’m worried about the kids.”

Mary could have leveraged her Conversation Compass and determined if Claudia wanted to vent, or problem solve.  She could have asked something like, “Are you sharing these details because there’s a specific problem you want help solving or, do you just feel like venting a bit?”

From there, Claudia could have answered “I think I’m just looking to vent.” which would have set the direction for the conversation.  But here’s a word of caution.  Once you ask someone if they are looking to vent or problem solve if the individual indicates they are looking to simply vent and blow off some steam, it can take a lot of self-discipline to refrain from offering unsolicited advice!

Listening attentively isn’t always easy.  It makes me think of the saying “God gave us two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”  And it’s always good to have the self-awareness around knowing whether or not you are really listening or just waiting for your turn to talk.  The point is, giving someone the space to vent and blow off steam isn’t always easy if you are on the receiving end of the conversation.  But sometimes, it’s exactly what someone needs if there’s isn’t a specific problem that needs to be solved.

Leveraging Your Conversation Compass and asking if the objective is to vent or problem solve can help steer the conversation in the right direction from the very start.

When someone is experiencing difficult emotions and you give them the opportunity to vent and blow off a little steam, you will notice them starting to feel better.  You might even hear them say something like “Thank you.  It feels good to get that off my chest.”

But before we wrap up this article, I expect right about now some of you are thinking about someone in your life who likes to vent… A LOT.  There’s no end to the venting for these individuals.  Give them an inch and they will take a mile.  In other words, if left unchecked, their venting will go on and on.  In these situations, its more about the individual than it is about a Tiny Tweak to help navigate a specific situation.  In the case where an individual gravitates to the need to vent to someone (sometimes anyone) who is willing to listen, it becomes a matter of setting interpersonal boundaries to protect yourself but that’s a topic for a different article.

I hope you’ll find the opportunity this week to incorporate Your Conversation Compass whereby you derive value from this Tiny Tweak.