One of the main topics I speak on is communication, specifically embracing the discomfort of difficult conversations, and I recently had cause to put my own teaching into action with an issue with my partner.
He and I have been together for over 3 years, and our personality styles simply work really well together. We adore each other, have a blast together, whether we’re traveling to far flung places, or laying on the couch doing nothing. We’re both very independent, which works beautifully. I leave town, we both do our own thing, and when we get back together on the weekend, we soak up the time together. After 46 years searching, and 2 failed marriages, this relationship brings an amazing calm to me.
That said, it’s not perfect, and expecting it to be would be unrealistic. Every once in a while, he’ll do something that really frustrates me. (or vice versa. Believe it or not, I’m not perfect either!) When I don’t have the tough conversation, and let him know what’s bothering me, whatever it is festers. In this particular instance, it was responsiveness to texted questions when I’m on the road. I’d be trying to plan a night out with our friends for when I got back, or a vacation, or something else, so I’d shoot him a quick text question, and I wouldn’t hear back. Not just within an hour, but for days. I would get so frustrated and my internal dialogue would be “come on. Just send me a message. It’s not like I’m expecting you to text me back within 15 minutes or anything. 24 hours. I know you’re looking at your phone at least once in 24 hours, can’t you take 27 seconds to text me back? I expect nothing of you when I’m gone, can’t you give me 27 seconds?” and my internal dialogue would swirl down and down and down, and I’d get indignant. “I’ve got to talk to him about this.”
And then the voice on the other shoulder would start. “but he’s awesome. Come on Anne, this isn’t a big deal. Suck it up. Are you really going to get all angry about this? Seriously? This is NOT a problem. Do you really want to ruin the few days you have home together with this tough conversation? Plus, he doesn’t mean it. It’s all in your interpretation. Relax. Sheesh.” and I would talk myself right out of talking to him about it.
And my resentment would grow.
Dan has a history of being fabulous when it comes to these kinds of tough conversations, and because I have studied and teach the tactics of how to have these conversations in an effective way, I know how to have them, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, this is exactly the situation I believe destroyed my first marriage. I was scared to have the conversation. When I finally approached a problem, I was very angry, and approached it all wrong, then he’d get defensive, I’d shut down, and bada bing, nothing is solved and resentment continues to mount, until I completely gave up on the relationship. How’s THAT working out for me?
So this is a deep seated fear for me, but clearly not a method of dealing with challenges that I want to continue.
Finally, after avoiding the conversation for probably 3 months, and telling at least 15 audiences to “Embrace the discomfort, HAVE the difficult conversation!” I slapped myself upside the head and said, “Honey, you’ve got to have this conversation. You’re being a hypocrite and it sucks!”
So I sat down and wrote myself a script. Not like I was going to take it into the conversation with me, but I wanted to plan out the words, because if I was in the moment that it was time to broach the conversation, and was forced to improvise, the chance that I’d chicken out YET again was very very high. Tip 1: write it out for yourself so you can plan how you will and will not present the problem.
I needed to phrase it not as a “you’re doing this wrong” situation, as that would likely (and understandably) make him defensive. Instead, I needed to present it as “There’s something that you’re doing that’s making me feel a certain way, and I know that’s not your intention, so I want to let you know so you can fix it, because I’m pretty sure you don’t want me to feel that way but it does and I’m getting resentful and I don’t want to feel that way about you and I’d want you to tell me if I was doing something like that because I love you and want you to feel good with our interaction.” In a less desparate and freakishly bizarre kind of way! But that needed to be the way I approach it. SO, Tip 2: approach the tough conversation in a “let’s solve this together, I’m not blaming you” and the person on the receiving end of the conversation is a lot less likely to react poorly.
Then, pick your time, and rip off the band aid.
I’m not going to say I actually started the conversation the next time I got home after writing that script…I chickened out again, but finally, I said, Anne, tonight is the night. “Tell him how you feel because he doesn’t want to make you feel that way and he would want to know.” And so I did, and the conversation went very very well. He thanked me for letting him know, and promised to try to get back to me, and also said “just call me if you want an answer right then. Sometimes I miss text messages.” The conversation didn’t even last 5 minutes. I hemmed and hawed for 3 months, over a 5 minute conversation, and really, it was only the first sentence that was the scary part. Once I had the problem out there, in a tactful and respectful way, we had a great conversation, solved the problem, and built a stronger level of trust with each other.
And he has gotten a lot more responsive, and sometimes, if I haven’t heard from him, instead of getting frustrated, I just call him! Bada-bing, problem actually solved.
Now, if he’d only do the dishes!
Whether it’s at home with your partner, at work with your teammates, or in some other area of your life, have the courage to have the conversation in a collaborative way!
If you want to get better at these tough conversations, Crucial Conversations is a FABULOUS resource for learning how to kick off these frustrations in a tactful and respectful way so the person on the other side of the conversation is willing to engage. I highly recommend it. It’s really easy to get absorbed in being indignant, resentful and throw the “they should know” and “they’re doing this to me” attitude towards the problem, but if we approach it that way, the likelihood that we’re going to have a constructive conversation is practically nill. So rev up your emotional intelligence, and see if you can approach it in a collaborative way. The result is not only solving the problem, but building trust, which is never never a bad thing.