A number of years ago a mentor of mine said something really important to me. “Mike,” he said, “do you know what stands between you and the kind of relationships you really want to have?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s probably just a ten minute, sweaty-palmed conversation you’re too afraid to have. If you get good at those ten minute, sweaty-palmed conversations, you’ll have fantastic relationships. But, if you do like most of us and avoid them, you’ll end up being a ‘victim’ of the people and situations in your life… and you’ll also give away a lot of your power to others,” he said.
His wisdom and insight was spot on, and I’ve been sharing it with others ever since he said it to me. And although I’ve had my fair share of sweaty-palmed conversations over the years, and in most cases they have gone quite well, allowed me to resolve conflicts with others, and created a deeper level of trust and connection in my relationships, I’m still amazed at how easy it is for me to avoid having conversations that I assume will be uncomfortable.
There are a few specific situations and relationships in my life right now that clearly require these types of conversations, and I’ve been finding all kinds of creative justifications for not having them, which, as I’ve learned many times in the past, doesn’t serve me and takes an enormous amount of energy.
So why do we do this? Why do we avoid difficult conversations, or worse, end up gossiping, complaining, and actively blaming others for our own discomfort? I think there are a number of reasons we do this, but here are a few of the big ones.
First of all, we live in a culture of blame and avoidance. It’s much easier and frankly more socially acceptable to blame others when something happens we don’t like or to simply avoid dealing with a conflict or difficult situation. Most of us weren’t taught in school, at home, or as we’ve moved into our adult lives how to effectively deal with conflict in a healthy and productive way, so we aren’t all that well-equipped to address it.
Second of all, we’ve all had painful experiences in our past trying to deal with difficult situations and conversations. From the most extreme to the somewhat mild, each of us has experienced pain, hurt, disappointment, shame, failure, and more in our attempts to address a conflict, stand up for ourselves, or engage in a touchy discussion. These experiences often cause us to protect ourselves in one way or another.
Third of all, talking about stuff like this makes us vulnerable and it can be quite scary, both because of our past experiences and also because by doing so we expose ourselves to those specific things we don’t want to experience – pain, hurt, disappointment, shame, failure, and more.
It takes courage to have those ten minute, sweaty-palmed conversations (which sometimes take more than ten minutes, of course). More often than not, we’d rather be “safe” than risk looking bad, making things worse, or doing damage to ourselves, our relationships, and others.
However, usually what’s at risk is just our ego. And although there are no guarantees and it does take guts to engage in these types of conversations, each of us knows deep within us that we’ll be fine no matter what happens, and in fact, we also know that not being willing to have these types of conversations is ultimately way more damaging to us, our relationships, and everyone around us than taking the risk and speaking our truth.
Here are a few things to think about and remember when dealing with a conflict or difficult conversation:
1) Take responsibility – It always “takes two to tango.” Taking responsibility is not about being at fault or blaming the other person, it’s about owning up to the situation and recognizing that we are a part of the issue. It’s also about honestly feeling and expressing our emotions with authenticity.
2) Address the conflict directly – Conflicts are always handled most successfully when they’re dealt with directly and promptly. Be real and vulnerable when you approach someone with an issue, but make sure to do so as soon as possible, don’t let it fester.
3) Seek first to understand – As challenging as it can be, the best approach in any conflict situation is to listen with as much understanding, compassion, and empathy as possible – even and especially when we’re feeling angry or defensive. If we can understand where the other person is coming from, even if we don’t agree, we have a good chance of being able to work things out.
4) Use “I” statements – If someone does or says something and I have a specific reaction to it, that’s real. If I judge someone, make a generalization about them, or accuse them of something, not only is it not “true” (it’s just my opinion) it will most likely trigger a defensive response from them. We must own our feedback as ours, not speak it like the “truth.” Using “I” statements allows us to speak from a place of truth, ideally without blame or judgment.
5) Go for a win-win – The only real way to have a conflict resolved authentically is if it’s a true win-win for everyone involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each person gets his or her way. It does, however, mean that everyone gets heard, honored, and listened to. And, when and if possible – we make compromises that leave everyone empowered and in partnership.
6) Acknowledge others – Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a situation that involves lots of people, acknowledgment is essential to our ability to engage in productive conflict and to be able to resolve it in an authentic and effective way. Thank the other people involved in the conflict for being willing and able to engage. Thank them for their truth.
7) Get support and have compassion for yourself in the process – A lot of times these difficult situations and conversations bring up a lot of fear and cut to the core of our most vulnerable insecurities. Because of this, it is important for us to reach out to others for authentic support (not agreement) who can help us both in a practical and emotional sense work through the issue and resolve it in a healthy and responsible way. It’s also important to have compassion with ourselves as we attempt to engage in these conversations… they aren’t usually fun or easy for most of us.
What can you do right now to have any difficult conversations you have been avoiding in a healthy and authentic way? What support do you need? Leave a comment about this here on my blog.