There were so many times when I could have said it sooner and better. I wanted to connect but I didn’t know how and I knew it. There was a part of me that was shy. I was comfortable expressing myself nonverbally through music and sports; but words were what was needed, if I wanted to have successful personal relationships. So I was motivated to learn all I could about becoming a better communicator.
I took workshops, read all I could, and gradually noticed that I was beginning to connect on a deeper level. This was true, whether it was in my personal or professional life. But no matter how skillful I became, there was always that conversation I avoided having. Regardless of what the circumstances were, there was always someone with whom I avoided having a conversation. As a lawyer I had my share of them. As a coach I have found that this is a universal problem.
In almost every situation between two people there is a “conversation” that can begin the healing process. This conversation can show up anywhere in your life, but usually it shows up at home with your loved ones or in the workplace.
If you don’t communicate what’s on your mind the situation only becomes worse. It won’t go away. That’s the way it was for me. I was the classic avoider. When I first began practicing law I shared office space with Sean. For many years we were very close, like brothers, but our relationship began to change. Sean started to distance himself and seemed to shut down whenever he was around me. Even though I was aware of this happening, I didn’t say anything because I was afraid that what Sean might say would be hurtful. Our conversations remained cordial, yet superficial, and eventually we stopped communicating and went our separate ways.
I lost touch with Sean. When I had a chance encounter with Sean approximately 20 years later, I got to have that conversation. After a busy day of running errands in an obscure place I noticed an attorney’s office. I walked inside and there was Sean. It was a special moment for both of us. I told Sean how special he had been in my life and how hurt and disappointed I had been when we drifted apart. Sean shared his journey with me. He said he had to hit bottom, and as part of that process, he pushed everyone away. I thought I was the only one.
For many years I had felt that it was because of me that the relationship had broken down. The truth was that it had nothing to do with me. Sometimes having these conversations is a risk. I certainly felt that way walking into Sean’s office, but I’m glad I did. I spoke my truth. We both understood what it was that at one time had connected us. We also understood why we were now walking different paths.
Probably the most fertile ground for having these conversations is with your significant other or a family member. Prior to meeting my wife, Annie, I was in an unsatisfactory relationship for three years with someone else. I accepted the circumstances of the relationship because I didn’t want to confront the truth, which was that we wanted different things from life. I wanted to have a family and she said she wasn’t sure. I didn’t press it, because I didn’t want to find out what she really wanted, which was not to have a family. I also didn’t want to be alone. But the truth was that even though I was in a relationship with her, I felt alone.
If I had been willing to face the truth, it would have been easier to have had that conversation. Instead, I avoided it for three years. Finally things came to a head and we had that conversation. If I had been more truthful with myself and had faced my fear of being alone, I would have had that conversation much sooner.
I know most of you have had similar experiences. Rather than finding out what’s really going on, you avoid having the conversation. All that does is prolong the tension and stifle any real communication.
Four Suggestions That Will Impact Your Ability to Engage in Difficult Conversations
1. Whenever you feel conflict or tension in a relationship, make the commitment to have a conversation about it. Think of a potential conflict as an opportunity to deepen the connection. Look at it this way: Conflict=Opportunity.
I know that I’m simplifying it and I also know that it’s true. It’s a powerful concept. Rather than running
away, look for what’s possible. See this opportunity as a gift.
2. Be strategic. Think of a supportive place and time when you think the other person will be more receptive to what you have to say. If it’s a workplace issue, if at all possible have the conversation away from the workplace.
3. Don’t make the other person wrong. You might be wondering how you can let someone know that his or her way of doing things conflicts with your way without being
critical of them. This is where you get to develop your expertise. Once you become critical of another
person, their natural reaction will be to defend themselves and in the process most likely find fault with
you. They’ll never find out what your needs are or how the problem might be resolved. It’s also important to remember they might not even be aware of how their actions have impacted you.
4. Start the conversation with an observation. With Sean the following conversation would have been revealing, “Sean, I feel like you are pulling away from me. Did I do something that offended you? Are you ok?” That conversation would have made me aware that the distancing
that I was experiencing wasn’t because of me. With my girlfriend I could have had the following conversation much sooner. “We’ve been together for a while now and I really want to have a family. I’m not sure you want the same thing. What do you really want?” Simple, yet scary. You have to ask the questions even if you think the answers might be painful. Having the conversation is an art form. It
might seem awkward at first, but you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice because these situations keep coming up. They are part of living. If you don’t address what’s bothering you, the problem won’t miraculously go away. I have a challenge for you:
With whom can you have that conversation and when will you have it?
Mark Susnow, is an executive and life coach, who inspires others to believe in themselves. A former trial attorney for 30 years, he integrates what it takes to be successful in the world with the inner wisdom unfolded to him through years of yoga and meditation. He is the author of, Dancing on the River:Navigating Life’s Changes.