After a year fraught with worry, disruption, and uncertainty, it is less-than-awesome that we’re entering a new year of stress punctuated by rising Covid cases and deaths across this country. Chances are, it’s forcing some tough conversations as we make choices about how to persevere with protocol and caution, especially given heightened levels of pandemic and political fatigue. Balancing good sense and compassion can be a heavy lift at times like these—and can end up triggering a mixed bag of emotions. But in difficulty can come opportunity, and, in this case, the opportunity to try some new ways to communicate.
In a recent interview on the Mixing Up Midlife podcast, I talked with hosts Terri and Melissa about the importance of understanding our fears and how they play a central role in how we approach difficult conversations. During these days when out-of-the-ordinary restrictions are feeling increasingly ordinary, some of these tools might be helpful.
Here are my Five Steps to Having Difficult Conversations:
1. Unpack the Fear
What fear prevents you from speaking truth? It’s natural to want to avoid disappointing others, but all too often, it can become a knee-jerk tendency rather than a choice that serves us. If you’re avoiding a discussion about how to remain safe as we continue to navigate the weirdness, take some time to notice and identify the fears that are bubbling up and why. There may be old dynamics at play that are keeping you stuck in fear-based thought patterns.
2. Discern between Fear Fact and Fear Fiction
The human brain is a meaning-maker that constantly creates stories to explain its experiences and then looks for evidence to confirm those stories (scientists call it cognitive bias). But it’s important to understand that our internal narratives don’t necessarily reflect reality. So, to avoid acting based on the fictional narratives we create, we must be able to discern between fact and fiction. In tough conversations, this means sticking to what is true and factual by speaking truth with respect and kindness. Avoid anticipating what the other person will feel or think because you don’t know.
3. Do Your Job
Particularly when approaching a tense exchange, keep the focus on communicating your thoughts and feelings rather than predicting the reaction of the other person. It’s not your job to speculate about how your words will be interpreted, only to deliver them in an honest and respectful way. Keep your comments focused on the “I” instead of the “you.” It’s not that you’re being inconsiderate or self-centered. On the contrary, you’re making courageous choices to conduct the discussion so that you’re both well-served and respected.
4. Don’t Be Sorry
There is no reason to apologize for being open and honest if you’re doing it in a measured and respectful way. Apologies are indicated when there’s an offense to address, not merely for taking a position on an issue. They can become a crutch, something that we do automatically to rid ourselves of guilt or shame, even when there’s nothing to feel guilty or shameful about. Besides, constant apologizing only dilutes the meaning of any one apology.
5. Say it, Then Wait
When having a difficult conversation, conversation is the operative word. Leave space and opportunity for both parties to speak openly. If you make the courageous choice to communicate honestly, say your piece and then give the other person the opportunity to process and respond. Honor the silence while resisting the urge to fill it. Expect to be heard when you’re speaking (interruption and overtaking is a no-no), and then let your words take up space. If the other person chooses not to respond right away and you’re uncomfortable with the silence, ask whether they may need some time to process.
As with any new skills, these require practice, persistence, and patience. But the effort can pay huge dividends by allowing you to speak truth and take up space while still feeling confident and grounded. As we move forward into a new and no-less-stressful year, I’m wishing you all health, peace, and courageous choosing.
This piece was first published in Elephant Journal on January 22, 2021.