I asked you to stay tuned to my exploration about Difficult Conversations following the meeting with my Listening Post volunteers. This group always brings me insight and balance when I bring a question to them. And this conversation was no exception.
Twenty-three of us met last Saturday on this topic, as listeners at the Post often have difficult conversations in their listening with our patrons. And we have come up with some pretty good guidelines for those situations when we need to confront a patron with his or her language or behavior. But we also are seeing that we take our listening into our lives outside the role of listening volunteer. How do we respond in our daily lives when we want to initiate a conversation that is hard but it matters to us? How do we keep our listening intact and have the conversation we want to avoid but we know we honestly need to have? And how do we do it with those that are closer to us?
We could all resonate with what one volunteer started with: “I say to myself, ‘I have to have this conversation’ but then I don’t. And the next day I say it again, but then I don’t.” Initiating the conversation is linked to the fear that if we say anything, the situation will get worse, not better. “Things just get inflamed,” said another volunteer. “I start talking in hyperbole,” said another. “I feel like I have to sell my point of view and start saying ‘always’ and ‘never’ when it really isn’t true. But I it feels like I just have to be passionate to get my point across.”
We each come to this conversation with a history, a story, blocks, wounds and assumptions based on how we were raised or what we have experienced. I have a wonderful mother, but she was petrified of conflict and worked desperately to achieve her goal of having her family of 9 “all got along.” Holding the family together meant no conflict. “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” was not only her mantra but in the entire culture as well. And I had a pretty wonderful father, but he could get angry. And we were not allowed to question his authority or as he would say, “talk back.” Again, pretty normal for most kids growing up in the 1950’s. So I associated difficult conversations with never being heard, fear of reprisal and a collapse of my own will in deference to another. I have had no mentor or model for a difficult conversation that goes well. And I don’t thing many people do.
One of our volunteers did, though. Her former husband had a way of telling people hard things in a way that they didn’t get defensive and could hear what was being said. “He would put his arm around their shoulder and start walking with them, telling them what they had done wrong on the job but nobody every felt bad the way he did it. It was feeling that they were liked, I think. Not matter what he said, they felt liked and that went a long way.”
The conversation veered to experiences when they were at the receiving end of a difficult conversation. “I know it’s said to never take things personally–that usually people are projecting an older relationship onto this one–like they are angry at me because I remind them of someone else and they vent because I’m safer. But still it’s hard to remember that when you feel like you are being attacked.”
When we broke into small groups to explore a difficult conversation that we have had or that we wish we could have, the group came back afterwards to debrief. What more had we learned? “Two of us are feeling so passionate about this conversation that we know we will never have,” said one volunteer. “Wait, I’m confused,” said another. “If you are so passionate, doesn’t that mean you need to have that conversation?” The person replied, “We just know that the other person involved would never be open to talking about it. And in some ways, it would be unkind to have the conversation. But it felt so good, cathartic, to tell another person about it.”
This was an interesting twist–how to have the discrimination to know when that may be true or when we might use that as an excuse not to have it because it’s hard. As my co-director volunteer summed it up in the newsletter that followed, “It makes me all the more compassionate about the conversations that get left unsaid on a regular basis. But it also deepens my desire to move from the certainty to the possibility of truly listening to someone ‘on the other side’ of where I stand.”
This is only a start to the conversation about difficult conversations! But it’s a start. Below are the 5 areas of challenge in a difficult conversation brought forward in the book of the same name.
Again stay tuned. I think I’ll be learning about this for quite a while as I take this intention into my life.