ARGUABLY, OUR BIGGEST OBSTACLE to the continued development of any relationship is our capacity to say difficult stuff. A limit on candidness restrains both truth-telling and creativity, making real change and improvement impossible.
Think about it.
What are conversations with others for, both at and away from work, if not to discuss what matters most?
Put a limit on where that discussion can go and we hamstring ourselves and those we work with.
We have stuff to say and we notice we are reluctant to speak up. Our dilemma is one of having no good path to take.
On the one hand, we could say what’s on our mind, but we worry we are just going to make matters worse by lobbing the proverbial grenade into our relationship with this person. Then we will have to clean that up too.
Alternatively, we could just (continue to) not say what’s up for us. Except doing that feels passive and we become resentful. We can only do it for so long before we boil over…
Caught between protecting the peace and tolerating the problem at hand, we delay and avoid.
Then, that ‘last straw’ happens and we flip from restraint to confront.
It’s on, and we let ’em have it.
That’s candid alright but is also careless. Although our message gets delivered, we are our least diplomatic in communicating it.
Now, our relationship with this person is damaged. It’s a mess and we made it that way.
What’s the alternative?
A Third Way
Let’s take a moment to drill down on the psychology of the avoidance of difficult conversations.
There is a lot here.
Most of us do not want to be obnoxious, nor do we want to be that guy/gal who others experience as ‘a bull in the china shop.’ We want to play well with others.
Then conflict arises and we respond, as is usual for us, with our own concoction of being controlling, pleasing, or avoidant. You be you.
And yet there’s a very good reason why the vast majority of us delay speaking our mind when we have something to say we think will be uncomfortable for another to hear. We have our past experiences of hearing and saying difficult stuff, and it didn’t go well.
The truth is, we often use our words to hurt each other. We all do it.
In fact, the cycle I have been talking about here is the most typical: we hold back for fear of damaging our relationships, until such a time as we are too uncomfortable with the status quo to remain silent. Screw it – we offload.
Communicating difficult stuff has become synonymous with damaging our connections with others. That’s our experience.
Indeed, all of us have memories of “giving someone a piece of our mind” followed by walking away. We drop the mike and bounce.
Here’s the thing: if we were to decide to stay in connection with the object of our displeasure – that other person – then a whole world of possibility will open up to us where we can say practically anything.
The Last Thing We Expect
When was the last time someone told you something super uncomfortable and then, with a genuine sense of concern, asked you what it was like to hear that?
It may look like that someone is delivering something to you – delivering feedback – but that’s not what the interaction is really about.
What is really going on here is that your someone is in the process of learning about something. It’s a Learning Conversation.
For that reason the interaction doesn’t end with the feedback having been delivered, that’s just the beginning.
My mother, pissed off by how much time my father would spend playing golf, used to describe the game as “hitting a little white ball into a hole.” Technically correct but what a misrepresentation!
Likewise, we might be thinking we are just ‘sharing some feedback,’ but really, is that all that’s going on?
Susan Campbell distinguishes between two broad modes of communication: Controlling and Relating.
Interestingly, the difference comes down to our intentions.
Controlling communication is motivated by the intent to create a particular experience in another. We are trying to get them to agree with us, or like us, or open up, or shut up, etc, etc. Our desires for others are endless!
Relating, on the other hand, is the mere relating of our experience – in order to be known. That makes what we do next all-important.
Saying something nasty and then walking away makes perfect sense if the goal is to make someone feel awful. We say our piece and then make it the ‘last word’ on the matter by walking away, by disengaging.
Failing that, we could always stay and pile on, adding insult to injury, yadda yadda… but the strategy is the same: to injure.
And then there are those interpersonal maneuvers that appear to be about relating but turn sour so quickly that we’re left wondering.
My sons when younger would sometimes accidentally hurt each other, ending in tears. The perp’ might apologize but if their brother didn’t immediately accept the apology then it was quickly withdrawn in favor of a more defensive (and offensive!) stance. The apology is revealed for what it is: an escape strategy.
If, on the other hand, our intention is to relate our experience so as to be known, and without any specific impact in mind, then we can simply say what’s true for us and will want to still be there in order to field, to receive, whatever that impact was.
This is a relational aikido move. By letting go of the need to manipulate the other person we give them little to struggle against. They can remain undefended, open. Paradoxically, our ‘opponent’ is now more available to receive whatever message we are transmitting.
By abandoning the need to control (something we never had anyway) we are instead bestowed the power of influence. Not bad.
How We Create Unnecessary Noise
‘Ever come across the saying:
“What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Pounding the desk or raising our voices while expressing frustration seems to us to be an understandable way of ensuring our message is better heard.
In practice, our point gets lost due to our audience focusing – by necessity – on fending off our tone, volume, body language, etc.
This is a classic example of how our attempts at crafting a particular experience in our audience backfire and dilute the import of our communication. How frustrating!
The alternative is to let them into your world, vulnerably.
Tell them what happens for you when they do what they do. And by ‘do’ I literally mean what a sound and image recorder would record – just the facts.
Most importantly, hang in there long enough to understand what the impact of your disclosure is. You’re not dropping a bomb. You are opening up a conversation into something that matters to you – so stay to explore it.
If you are genuinely willing to stay connected – quite magically, you can say. almost. anything.