How many times have you had that sinking feeling … you’re in a conversation with someone you care about, and despite your best intentions it’s not going well.
Several of my clients and I’ve been noticing this recently in relationships that are important to us. So I’ve been reflecting on this challenge and have created a couple checklists that make overt steps we may intuitively take in less charged circumstances. What we’ve noticed is when the stakes are high, or we’re dealing with topics or themes that feel particularly tender, it often feels like our best intentions fly out the window, and those old neuronal pathways our more grounded wise selves hoped we’d left behind suddenly (and not prettily!) re-appear.
I’ve noticed times when I’ve wanted to engage in a conversation where I know we’re going to be venturing into a touchy topic. For me these kinds of conversations generally show up as exciting possibilities. I’m usually looking for ways to make life easier or things flow more fluidly.
My husband (it’s his Birthday today – Happy Birthday Bruce!) and I had one of those painful conversations recently. BTW, I want to pause and note here how deeply I appreciate his openness to my sharing about our relationship as freely as I do. It’s one the many ways he supports me.
A few weeks ago I’d wanted to share with him an article that I knew would be a tender topic for him, but I felt it explained my feelings and experience around the topic really well. So I was very excited! I really wanted for him to ‘see and hear’ me, and I thought reading the article would be a great way for us to do this together.
I let him know all this, and asked whether he’d be open to it. He said yes, but as we started into it I could feel him tighten up. Still, I persisted. In retrospect, I realize that I stepped over my knowing. My desire over-ruled my better judgment. It didn’t take long for him to be reacting from a familiar pattern. In that moment, there was no way we were going to get anywhere.
There are only so many stories, so you may know this one as well as he and I do. It feels like the other person is talking ‘at you’ with some criticism – perhaps some variation of “This is all your fault, if it wasn’t for you, this wouldn’t be happening!”, and you can feel yourself tightening up inside.
So here are the two checklists I created. The first for when you’re the excited one who wants to initiate the conversation. The second for when you find yourself in a conversation, and notice you’re being triggered by something that’s been said.
When you’re excited (or perhaps even driven) to initiate a potentially touchy conversation …
- Be sure to check in and keep your first attention on yourself – soothing and grounding any anxious parts. Don’t be so excited about the possibility, or in a rush to have the conversation that you don’t pay attention to the signals in yourself AND the other person – that’s asking for trouble!
- How are each of you showing up here? Is this is a moment where partnership between you is available? When you’re feeling open and ready, be sure to check in with them with regard to their openness to a collaborative conversation. As you hear their response, does what they’re saying mesh with your sense of where they’re at? Trust your knowing. If both of you feel grounded and present in your ‘yesses’, then go forward with your conversation.
- If you sense the space between you ISN’T clear and open, the wise and most respectful thing is to let them know that you’ve realized this actually ISN’T the time for the conversation, go back to Step 1, and be with whatever feelings are arising in you …
If you find yourself already in conversation, and you notice a part of YOU feeling challenged …
- First, pause, take a breath and check inside … it may be you were so engaged you didn’t notice your own inner warning signs rising until you’d already had a big reaction. Whatever the case, as soon as you notice, let the other person know that you’d like to come back to this conversation later, but right now you need to be with you.
- When you can focus on you, breathe and connect with that upset part. Thank it for doing what was necessary to bring your attention to it. Listen to what it has to say about what it’s feeling – perhaps criticized or judged by something the other person is saying? Ask, and listen for how you can be of service here. Be curious about what just happened – is there a theme or pattern that feels familiar? Do you generally lash out at criticism? Or perhaps beat up on, or silence yourself – or maybe both of these together? No matter what’s happened in the past, let this part know you’re here now – committed to listening, deepening your care and understanding of it, and standing for and acting on what’s most deeply true for you.
- Once you’ve soothed that part and come to a more grounded space, check inside to see whether anything the other person said was accurate. Does any of it fit? Might there be a grain of truth here? Is there any way that they might actually have been serving you? Is there some piece of valuable feedback or practice you can take on that might make a difference in your life and relationships? Then take this and let the rest go!
It’s highly unlikely that in this moment they’re open to receiving you in that role. However in your response of keeping your focus on dealing with what’s happening in you, you’re not burning any bridges. Instead, you’re strengthening your own foundation … and in that, cultivating circumstances that make it more likely they’ll be open to exploring with you at a future time.
Finally, I want to point you to a powerful Facebook post that appeared last week as I was reflecting on all this. Well worth checking out, it was written by Tad Hargrave – he calls it On Causing Harm.
I’ve taken on this paragraph from Tad’s writing as a commitment to myself. While I like it all, I particularly appreciate the last two sentences. Tad speaks to our role when we’ve caused harm to someone – “To retrace the terrain you walked through. See where you stumbled. See where the quicksand was that pulled you in. Learn the good trails through it all. Learn what your actions cost others. See the burden on them. Don’t look away. Sustain the gaze on the wreckage but do it without collapsing inside of yourself. Learn the trail that brought you there and the trails out so that you can be useful to those to come.“
May we have the courage (and the community support) to act in this way. And when we notice that’s not the case, be fierce and especially kind, in our loving of those parts of us that clearly need more love, not less.