We all know the sinking feeling of when things start to get weird in a relationship: strange tension with our boss at work, a short temper with our partners, or weird energy with our best friend.
Yeah, it’s not fun.
Most of us would rather avoid confrontation like the plague than actually tell someone what is on our mind. Confrontation makes us queasy, nervous, and uncomfortable. So much so, that we often decide that to bring up a point of contention within a relationship would only make everything worse. So, we avoid away!
In avoidance land, tension magically disappears and everything goes back to normal. It requires no dreaded confrontation, and everyone is best friends forever!
Sadly, avoidance land is fiction.
In reality, it’s avoiding the hard conversations that makes things worse, not having them. Yes, there are frivolous times where avoiding a conversation and letting ‘it be’ may be easier than opening Pandora’s box.
But, we’re not talking about those conversations, we’re talking about the important ones. The conversations that can drastically change a relationship, that keep you up at night thinking about them, and that can lead you to true freedom and healing.
Before we decide if we’re going to go ahead with a tough conversation we have to ask ourselves some questions. First, “Am I willing to give this conversation what it takes to have a good outcome?” and second, “Am I willing to face the outcome of this conversation if it is not good?”
If the answer is yes, then you are ready to move forward.
Disclaimer: the latter of the two questions above is most important because sometimes, the result of a challenging conversation may not be what we had planned. This is okay.
From here, we are ready to confront the conversation that we may have otherwise avoided by following a few easy steps.
Step One: Let it out
The build up of toxic energy inside of us is dangerous to our physical and mental state. Physically, our bodies respond to negative energy by releasing our adrenal glands stress-responder: cortisol. Overtime, a build up of cortisol can turn into inflammation inside of our body. Yes, that’s the same type of inflammation that is linked to almost every major health issue.
Meta-physically, holding onto negative energy results in increased stress, tension, anger, resentment, frustration, confusion, and disconnect… just to name a few.
Putting off important conversations can add stress into our lives which in turn fosters this build up of toxic energy.
So, how can we avoid this?
By saying what we need to say to the people we need to say it to.
Sometimes, we can’t just launch into a tough conversation. Think: talking to your boss, addressing a serious matter with your partner, or unpacking years of issues with someone important in your life. In these cases, it makes sense to take some time to prepare before you start the talk. The rule of thumb is this: if we’re having strong feelings on a serious matter, it makes sense to prepare.
Preparing for a tough conversation has multiple benefits. First, it gives us the opportunity to get clear about our feelings and what we’re trying to say. As the conversation gets going, being prepared also helps us stay focused during times of intense emotion. Finally, it helps us become better listeners because when we pre-plan our thoughts, we spend more time actually listening and less time waiting to respond.
Alternatively, there are other, tough conversations that can happen by simply winging-it. The rule of thumb for these are: if you are facing a smaller challenge, conversing with someone you easily ebb and flow with, or talking to a person you’ve had a history of having serious conversations with in the past… go for it.
Having a tense conversation on the fly has its own positives. First, it gives us an immediate tension release. Any anger, resentment, or guilt that we are harboring is freed when we finally open up about what’s bothering us.
Also, it allows us to avoid any of the unnecessary mind games that come along with waiting. You know, the ones where we imagine that what is going to happen during the conversation is so much worse than what actually happens.
Expectation: She’ll never speak to me again.
Reality: She completely understands.
In these moments, nipping it in the bud can be extremely helpful and successful.
Every relationship is different, and it is up to us to decide whether or not preparation is important for the conversation we plan to have. Regardless, the most important thing is that we actually have the conversation.
Step Two: Listen
True listening happens when you are fully present in a moment. To listen doesn’t mean that we agree with what’s being said. If we are in a difficult conversation, then it is safe to assume that we probably aren’t agreeing with the person we’re talking to. This is okay.
Remember, it becomes harder to listen when we disagree or feel that we are being criticized. In these moments, it is normal to feel defensive. When this happens, it’s helpful to notice how we feel. Is our heart beating faster? Is there tension within our body? Are we sweating? Do we feel tears welling up?
As these feelings arise, it’s healthy to notice them and allow them to flow through our bodies, instead of holding onto them inside. This way, the feelings do not take control of the conversation. They are only temporary reactions.
It can be incredibly challenging to be told what our weaknesses are, but it is also an excellent opportunity for growth. Usually, the toughest conversations happen with the people we are closest to. This gives us a golden moment for healing, if we choose to be present with our listening and put our ego aside.
Also: listening does not mean resolving… but, more on that later.
Step Three: Meet people where they are
We are all human beings. We get sad, angry, lazy, rigid, and stubborn. Expressing vulnerability on both sides during a hard conversation is the most effective way to begin the healing process. This means, using our hearts both to share and to feel what the other person is trying to express to us.
When we’re holding a lot of tension toward someone else, it can be hard to remember what attracted us to that person in the first place. However, if we’re having a tough conversation with that person, it’s likely that we care enough about the relationship to try to make it healthier and happier.
So, when things get hard, let’s take a few moments, come back to our breath, and remind ourselves why this relationship matters to us. Humanizing the other person in the heat of a challenging moment has the power to dissolve defensiveness quickly.
Everyone is coming from a different place. In order to work, live, or form relationships with different types of people we have to commit to honoring people’s differing views, experiences, and responses to situations. The sooner we agree to meet people where they are, the larger and more fruitful our inner circles will become.
Step Four: Take some downtime
A period of quiet-time and separation both after or during a challenging conversation can be incredibly beneficial. For some people, taking space during a tense moment is essential for their ability to heal and process. Other times, if a conversation is particularly heavy, it may need to be discussed over a span of multiple hours, days, or weeks.
Taking time apart during a difficult conversation gives both parties the opportunity to relax, process, and create space for new possibilities about reconciliation to emerge.
Remember, taking a break from a heated topic doesn’t mean we’re throwing in the towel – it means we’re honoring the flow of the conversation enough to give it the space it needs to truly heal.
Step Five: Resolve
When we decide to resolve a conflict, we are investing in our relationship. This investment becomes fulfilled through action.
Taking action means defining clear steps so that both parties know what they can do to bring more peace to the relationship. It also means doing what you say you’re going to do, being accountable and honorable, and showing up in the relationship when you need to.
But, action isn’t the only important component of resolving a hard conversation.
We can also move toward a resolution by maintaining a sense of fluidity. The journey of living our truth and daring to change means that we are open to continuously expanding and changing our viewpoints to become more whole, authentic people.
What once was a limit in our personality can now become the starting point for our limitless potential. Let’s not let our old behaviors keep us stuck. If something about ourselves is causing a problem for other people, we have the power to change it… always.
There are people in our lives that we value enough to take risks in our communication with, to make mistakes with, and to learn together through honesty and vulnerability with.
We can do hard things.
We can tell people what is bothering us.
We can have challenging grown-up conversations, and we can heal from them.
As Elena Brower so eloquently shared, “What you are afraid to say is the doorway to your freedom.” What are you holding in that needs to be said? Share it, and together, may we all find our freedom.
Listen to the Difficult Conversation Podcast here.