When I was teaching fifth grade in Texas, I had a student who was failing my class because he would not turn in any of the assignments. The stakes were particularly high for this student because, at the time, Texas had a guideline that stated if students did not pass Reading and Math in 5th grade, they would be retained. I remember doing all I could to help motivate this student to turn in his assignments. I didn’t even care if they were on time, I just wanted him to turn them in. One day, the parents emailed me a solution and said, “We know he can’t be bothered to turn in his assignments, but he does love to read. He especially loves to read the Stephen King Green Mile series. So how about if he does a book report on all of the books he does like to read, and you count that for a grade.” I politely responded with, “That’s not how this works. You can’t just make up the assignments for him since he doesn’t like the ones I’m giving him.”
Shortly after this exchange, I got called into the principal’s office during my prep period and this student’s parents were waiting for me. Apparently, my principal had set up a meeting with his parents without my knowledge and as you can guess, things did not go well. The parents ended up yelling at me, accusing me of being responsible for their son failing because I wouldn’t let him make up his own assignments, and the dad stormed out of the office. Meanwhile, the principal did not say one word to defend me. I left the meeting feeling completely defenseless and utterly defeated. Later, my principal had the nerve to come down to my room and say, “Well, that didn’t go well.” I was furious to say the least. After I had calmed down, I thought of so, so many things I could have said to the parents and to the principal to defend myself. I know we have all been in similar situations-ones where we think of all the things we could have said in the moment.
Thankfully, I have had very few incidents like that since that one. And, I have learned so much about how to have healthy communication, even when I feel attacked. One of the scarier things in life for most people is having courageous conversations with others. Many people will avoid confrontation at all costs. Many people will avoid it because they feel like if they speak up, they will come across as aggressive rather than assertive. One of my favorite things to teach my clients in therapy is appropriate ways to have courageous conversations with others. This week and next week I’ll be giving my quick and easy fixes for how to have hard conversations with others. Honestly, there are some of the things I wish I would have known way back when I first started teaching. At the very least, I could have respectfully told my principal how much I did not appreciate being blindsided.
Another good reminder when having hard conversations is that as much as someone loves you, they cannot read your mind. I know my husband pretty well and sometimes I make the correct guess on what he’s thinking or feeling but I cannot read his mind, and he can’t read mine. It is my job to communicate to him my wants and needs, not for him to guess and hope he gets it right.
Don’t avoid having hard conversations
I could write an entire blog post on why it’s better to have the difficult conversations, rather than letting things fester. But for now, I will say, in my humble opinion, that it’s almost always better to confront and get the difficult conversation out of the way than it is to avoid it until it becomes an explosive conversation. Many people sit in my office and tell me about things that have happened that could have been avoided with a simple conversation. Entire families have stopped speaking over misunderstandings, often very minor things, because someone said or did something that offended them. Often times, the other family member has no idea what they said or did that caused the rift. When the offending party finds out how their actions or words were interpreted by the offended party, they are usually shocked and saddened that they weren’t told, and then didn’t have the opportunity to repair the hurt. If something doesn’t sit right with you, it’s better to clear the air and have the conversation. It might not go well, but at least you’ll give the other person the opportunity to explain their actions.
Try this approach if you need to confront:
“When you said, _______________, I interpreted it as________________. Is that what you meant?”
Would you mind telling me what you meant when you said, ______________?”
I always think it’s best to wait a few minutes until you’re calm, and then ask these questions. Things normally go much better than if we ask when you’re annoyed or frustrated.
Aggressive vs. Assertive Communication
Many clients have told me when they must have a difficult conversation, or even if they are telling someone their wants/needs, they feel like they’re being aggressive. When someone is aggressive, you know it. Usually their voice is louder, they might be yelling, and they are talking in shorter sentences. In assertive communication, you’re talking from your experience/point of view, and you’re using a calm, normal voice.
Many people also tend to go into passive aggressive communication, which is acting as though you’re being compliant to the wants/needs of others, but you’re acting it out in an aggressive way, such as slamming doors, muttering under your breath, or delaying doing the task. Passive-aggressive communication almost always leaves one person feeling very resentful.
Try this approach for assertive communication:
“I didn’t like how we left things last night because I got the impression you were feeling ______, is that true?”
“I want to make sure we’re on the same page, and what I heard you say was __________, is that what you meant?”
Remember the end goal
If you’re in a relationship with someone, friends, partners, spouses, more times than not, you both want the same thing out of the relationship. Obviously, the end goal depends on the nature of the disagreement and the relationship, but most of the time both parties want the same thing. Usually, peace and calm.
There is research to support that the biggest fear that people have is being left alone. Because, if you’re left alone (as a baby), you will die. So, we crave community and connection with others. The research states that this stems from birth and is likely in our DNA. Researchers also state that when people argue and fight, they are triggered and the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fight, flight or freeze), makes them believe that the other person will leave, and then they will die. Keep in mind that this process happens in .01 seconds, so this isn’t a conscious thought. That comes a little bit later in the process, when your senses start giving your brain cues that the other person is not going to leave, and you’re just having a disagreement. I think this process is helpful to understand why it’s difficult to have hard conversations.
When you do have to have a hard conversation with someone, it’s important for you to know the end goal at the beginning of the conversation. It might be, I’m tired of fighting all of the time, I want us to be on the same page, I feel you’re unreliable, etc. If you can know what the end goal is in the conversation, it makes it much easier to stay on topic and not get roped into the defense mechanisms people use to distract you from the main point of the conversation.
Try this approach for remembering the end goal:
“It sounds like you’re still upset about __________, and we can talk about that later, but right now we need to talk about ___________.”
“One of the main reasons I’m having this hard conversation is because I love you and our friendship, and it’s worth it to me to have it so I’m not holding on to resentment, that’s not fair to you or me.”
Again, I think it’s best to have these conversations when you’re both calm, but even if you’re not, you can still remind the other person that you want the same thing. If you know that you can’t be calm during a conversation, it’s best to communicate that as well by stating, “I hear what you’re saying, and I need some time to think this through. Can we talk about it in 30 minutes or so?” It’s best to set a time to talk about it later as well, this will help alleviate the anxiety that will come with having to revisit a difficult conversation.
If the person you’re trying to have the hard conversation with does not respond well to these interventions, it is more information for you on where you might need to create a boundary with them in the future. In my experience, having these difficult conversations with parents and loved ones are usually the most difficult. If they don’t react well, it might mean you need extra, or outside help to figure it out.
I’ll be back next week with some more tips on how to have courageous conversations and in the meantime, I hope you can put these healthy communication skills into practice.
I love working with highly sensitive people. If you think you might need counseling or coaching, and especially If you’re highly sensitive, please feel free to contact me at 317.496.0456 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to hear what is happening and help you find the right fit for counseling or life coaching. If you are looking for help with burn out, depression, anxiety, trauma or behavioral concerns, you can read more about how I can help at my website peacefamilycounseling.