Navigating through difficult conversations

  • Who would you be stuck with on a desert island? Robin Trimingham says the answer before and after lockdown may be different

    Who would you be stuck with on a desert island? Robin Trimingham says the answer before and after lockdown may be different

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress” — Mahatma Gandhi

There’s an old party game that asks participants to explain if they were stranded on a desert island with just one person, who would they want that person to be and why.

In retrospect I think it would have been an interesting social exercise to have asked people how they would have answered this question before the advent of Covid-19 and whether they would answer any differently now.

Would those who spent the last 90 days almost entirely alone, for example, be picky regarding who they would allow onto their island now, or would they welcome any sort of companionship with open arms?

Similarly, would those who thought they had solid relationships before the pandemic enthusiastically agree that they would want to spend eternity on a desert island with their present life partner, or would they be quietly weighing their options?

It’s fair to say that, as much as the pandemic has been an unprecedented opportunity for family members to strengthen relationships, forge new alliances and mend fences, living in a confined space with too many people — or simply the wrong people — can push even the strongest person to the breaking point.

However, rather than letting these relationships completely disintegrate what follows are a couple of strategies to help you get through moments of controversy by seeking to at least understand, if not embrace, the other person’s point of view.

To start with, try to keep in mind that when someone is telling you how they really feel in an agitated way, at least you know you are being respected to the point that you’re hearing the truth from them — regardless of whether this is a truth that you “want” to hear, let alone a truth that you agree with.

Conversely, a disagreement where one or both people are not vested enough to speak their mind — (or don’t feel secure enough to speak their mind — is a situation that may well escalate and lead to a further breakdown of communication. After all, how can you ever hope to resolve a situation if you aren’t even discussing the real problem?

Second, whenever a discussion starts to get heated, bear in mind that the one thing that you can always control in any encounter with another person is your response to the encounter.

In short, you do not have to respond to a verbal aggressor with aggression.

Provided your physical safety is not being threatened, you can choose to state your position in a calm manner. You can also permit the person that you are confronted with to be whatever it is that they need to be in that moment without taking their behaviour personally — in much the same way that you would not lose your patience with a crying baby.

As grown-ups, most of us are simultaneously part-child and part-adult. When the situation becomes too emotional or too frustrating for a person to cope, they quite often feel powerless. And what does a person who feels powerless frequently do? They act out childishly.

So rather than joining in the verbal tantrum, what’s a better way to coexist with the person you find yourself sharing your island with?

Why not create an environment where people can “honestly disagree” about a subject? In other words, set ground rules where you can disagree about a subject in a respectful manner by making an intentional effort not to insult each other’s ideas, and instead actually listen to each other and find the best, or most appropriate solution.

By making the approach to the discussion more important than the outcome, the most just or well-developed argument can prevail in the discussion — not just the loudest voice.

Robin Trimingham is an author and thought leader in the field of retirement who specialises in helping corporate groups and individuals understand and prepare for a new life beyond work. Contact her at, 538-8937 or

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Published Jun 23, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 23, 2020 at 8:35 am)

Navigating through difficult conversations

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