DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS THAT AREN’T GOING WELL appear to be the topic of conversation on the mind — in the lives — of many of my clients. Consequently I’m exploring that “roadblock” that so many people experience. And I’m also looking at what has made a difference in my own conversations/encounters over the years…..and that is for the purpose of being helpful AND examining what I’ve done myself that has sometimes worked and sometimes HAS NOT.
And when I’m beginning to explore a topic either in my head or on my computer, I “curiously” — or perhaps NOT so curiously — discover something I’m reading has a helpful and totally relevant idea for reflection. So first, let me share two quotes I’ve run across in just two days.
First is Ursula LeGuin: “To oppose something is to maintain it.”
Second is Simone de Beauvoir: “In the face of an obstacle which it is impossible to overcome, stubbornness is stupid.”
I like these two statements about challenging conversations or relationship encounters a LOT! So try reading each one of them aloud and see how they resonate with you. Each quote is a capsule version of what many of us, if not most, need to explore when we are stuck and unhappy with the outcome of an encounter….
So to explore the “brilliance” under or behind the quote…. Both women are identifying how challenging it is for most of us to see/to hear/to understand that we are not WINNING. The deep, ingrained, strong need to BE RIGHT is a challenge to examine. And it’s a hard idea to get your hands around and OWN. And the stronger the “felt need” to be right, to win, to get the other to agree, even back down is….the more likely you are to 1) do damage to the relationship…even if you win the point; 2) to lose the point AND do damage to the relationship.
So WHAT IS THE NEED TO BE RIGHT about? There are many layers to an answer that’s actually helpful. Consequently, see what, if any of my thoughts make sense or perhaps truly fit how you feel, what you encounter, how you manage hard conversations. At a truly basic level, people in general simply need to be SEEN, HEARD, ACCEPTED… and agreeing with me when I’m trying to make a point actually accomplishes all that! Disagreeing NEGATES not just my idea or opinion, but ME…When you feel “negated” you likely take action….so just start to reflect on what you think, feel, do when someone disagrees with you, let alone when that “someone” disagrees and pushes back!
I fear there is a well engrained “survival” instinct that surges for more of us than is good — for relationships, for connection, for true problem solving. Because when I need to BE RIGHT it’s very likely I will not genuinely listen to you. But if I truly do listen, I might find I can separate my thoughts and feelings and opinions FROM SELF! Ideas are ideas, thoughts are thoughts, feelings are feelings…..and WHO YOU ARE AND HOW ACCEPTABLE YOU ARE can be and needs to be separated from winning an argument or making a point….
My work as a therapist necessitates listening regardless of what I think or feel or want or need — or even believe… at least at first…and my ideas/questions/ thoughts for alternative thinking work only when the client is ready to actually hear options for problem solving and change….And I recall that during my training in graduate school, I had to stop myself from interrupting and solving the client’s problem! I wanted to talk, to fix it, AND, honestly I wanted to demonstrate how “right” I was. Training was gratefully about learning to be quiet and listen….listen deeply.
Experiment with the effort to pay attention to what sweeps over you or surges through you when someone disagrees with you. Slow yourself down in challenging conversations to enable you to at least try. Test your ability to paraphrase the statement the other person has just made. Did you hear the ENTIRE IDEA or were you busy thinking of your rebuttal? Once you stop listening, survival and winning has clicked in. The strong urge to interrupt, to make your point stops you from hearing …. and you are already defending your “rightness.” It truly gets you NOWHERE…. Well, it does open the possibility for a strong disagreement and a genuine misunderstanding of what either of you actually think, feel, want, or need.
Most of us learned our way of communicating in the multiple environments of childhood — the family, school, Sunday school, interactions with friends. And often past learnings are deeply engrained. Sometimes there could have been the feeling that survival depended on being right. Or, “I might die if I’m not right” is a belief that can be cemented in our brains from anxiety and intense fear in either childhood or adult relationships. Consequently it’s important to not minimize the feelings you have in situations of conflict. Rather it’s important to pay attention and find safe and helpful ways to examine the history and explore healthy changes.
Go back and read the quotes. Both suggest that opposition fuels the position of the other person….helps lock in the disagreement, and ensures that you will say or do something likely stupid…and cause the other person to dig in just as much as you have perhaps already done…And if you find yourself in numerous disagreements….conversations that end in hurt feelings and no resolution, write those two quotes down somewhere to make sure you re-read and reflect on them…
Experiment with encouraging other people to “say more” to “expand their position” and listen like your life depends on it. It obviously doesn’t unless you sometimes come to blows with others….but your good relationships depend on it….and your ability to grow and learn, and to establish better connections…. yes, all of that depends on it…on asking, listening, reflecting, pausing, letting go of the need to be right.
I wish you much good energy for exploring these ideas…and the peace of mind that typically results… you do deserve to feel better and to have lasting, connected relationships…and sometimes you have to get some help with the ideas….always feel free to ask me questions and always find someone to talk to when you feel stuck.