How to make difficult conversations easier

If you’re a fan of folk music, you may be familiar with this phrase, “If we speak strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.”

It’s from singer-songwriter Joan Baez’s 1975 song “Diamonds and Rust,” which is widely believed to have been inspired by Baez’s relationship with Bob Dylan. And according to bestselling author Susan Cain, it’s the key to making difficult conversations a lot easier.

The author appeared on Simon Sinek’s podcast “A Bit of Optimism” last month to discuss her latest book, “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes Us Whole,” which focuses on the power of a bittersweet, melancholy state of mind.

The song’s lyrics certainly qualify as bittersweet, but the most rhetorically useful aspect of the line is more about the first four words of that line, Cain said: “Speak strictly to me.”

Sinek chimed in: “Can you imagine if every opinion anyone expressed, political or otherwise, started with ‘Are you speaking strictly for me?’ How disarming that is, but also how open-minded that is.”

That simple sentence does several important things at once, according to Cain and Sinek’s estimation — all of which can help navigate difficult conversations.

For starters, it echoes the oft-recommended “I” over “you” statements that couples therapists talk about. In general, “I” statements – such as “I feel” and “I think” – are seen as more positive responses than accusatory “you” statements, although there is some debate about the concept’s universal effectiveness.

“When you say, ‘I feel this way,’ it’s heard in a much better way than ‘You always do this,'” Cain said. “‘Speaks strictly to me’ is another version… of an ‘I’ statement.”

Therefore, the sentence can put a listener at ease. “Their shoulders relax as soon as they hear that line,” Cain said. “Nothing is required of me at this time. I just have to listen.’

Similarly, using “speak strictly for me” gives the person you’re talking to a quick guide to how you want them to respond, Sinek said.

“If we’re having a difficult conversation with someone where we need them to hold space, it’s expected that they have the skills to hold space,” he said. “When I say ‘I speak strictly for me,’ I am giving them instructions and directions on how to keep space.”

Finally, the phrase can help in conversations where both people are at least partially “right.” By making your side of the argument clear, saying “speaking only for me” can help encompass some of that gray area.

“What [the phrase] does is… it allows for a conversation of bitterness, sadness, harshness, it makes sure those conversations are received the way they are meant to be,” Sinek said, rather than as accusations or judgments.

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