Psychological health

The “Three Times Rule” for Starting Difficult Conversations

I have found that there is a useful way to frame and deal with difficult conversations. I call it the “three times rule”. It refers to the fact that if I find myself going back into an accident or exchanging it with someone on more than three occasions, then I use the rule of three to bring it up.

Here is an example.

Me: “Hi Janet. I was wondering if we might find time to talk.”

Janet: “Sure, what’s up?”

Me: “Well, we exchanged opinions the other day and I wanted to discuss it with you. You see, I have this rule that if something happens, and I find myself thinking about it afterwards on three or more different occasions, it’s a sign that I should talk about it. I found myself thinking about an exchange we had a week or so ago several times over the course of the week so I wanted to talk to you about it.”

Janet: “Well. I’m not sure if I know what you’re talking about. It’s when you made that comment about your theory?”

Me: “Yeah, that was the thing. I want to make it clear up front that I’m not exactly sure what you mean by it or what I should do with it. I just wanted to tell you that it activated something inside of me and I wanted to share it with you.”

Janet: “So, can you tell me what you were thinking or what your reaction was?”

I am yes. So, everyone knows that I am definitely obsessed with my theory. So, on some level when I said “it was all I cared about” I can see what you meant. But it was the way I said it. Or maybe the way you heard it. I don’t know, it seemed disrespectful or painful. I guess I heard it like you were saying that I’m a complete narcissist who only cares about my theory. Maybe I expected but that’s how I heard it. Or so a part of me heard it. And I’ve found myself coming back to it more than three times over the past week, so I’m here to share this with you just to let you know.”

Janet: “Huh. Well, I didn’t really mean I thought you were a complete narcissist, I was just saying you’re obsessed with your work. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Me: “Thanks for that. Like I said, I knew it might have come from me. It’s just about some complicated feelings about my work and my relationships with it and how it relates to others. I was probably putting that in your comment too much. But I thought you wanted to know because it affected me.” Now hearing your feedback helps me know that was not your intention.”

In my clinical work I have found that many people find it difficult to know how to “process” the feelings about their relationship.

Read 3 tips for creating conversations worth having in your workplace

Process talk refers to when the perspective shifts from ordinary everyday content (the “what” of the conversation) to the processing of feelings and relationship dynamics (the “how” of the conversation).

The ‘Three Times Rule’ to start difficult conversations

This is an unusual way of speaking that requires practice.

The “three times rule” is a simple tactic for framing the conversation.

There are some additional principles to guide the discussions of the process.

First, when you open this example, let the person know that you would like to find time to talk.

This alerts the person that something is important to the discussion and allows the setting of the framework and context.

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