The Hard Conversations

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

Life is about learning.  Learning requires acknowledging lack of skill, knowledge, understanding, or all three and more.  Boundaries, curiosity and non-judgment make it so much easier; too bad we tend to lose these natural traits (or they are trained out of us) early in life.  Then we have to relearn them as skills.  What happens when we reacquire boundaries, curiosity and non-judgment?  We get much better at having the hard conversations.  What makes conversations hard?  Not sure?  Just think of the conversations we avoid.  What are we actually avoiding?

I resist apologizing when I don’t want to admit that I misunderstood, that I made wrong assumptions that led to behaviors that hurt people, that I was not my best self.  I worry that people will think less of me and not trust me, not include me in the future.

I avoid giving negative feedback because I don’t know how the other person will take it.  Will they crumble in a heap of self-flagellating despair?  Will they lash out and attack me, verbally or physically, threatening my safety?  Will they disparage me to others, try to split our colleagues between us, sow discord and undermine our culture?  I worry that I will lose control of the situation.

We resist conversations about politics, religion, and issues like abortion because they can escalate in a nanosecond, filled with emotional tumult.  These are precisely the exchanges during which we blow past all of our boundaries for civility, language, tone of voice, and rhetoric.  We lose all interest in understanding what the other person thinks or, more importantly, how they feel.  We stop relating.  We judge everything out of their mouths as oppositional, ignorant, and unworthy.  We worry that we will lose our status, self-efficacy, agency, or our friends.

* * *

My friend Earnestine * has migraines.  Over the years she has worked out their patterns: timing, location, aura, duration, and triggers.  She hydrates, protects her sleep, and, most importantly, manages her stress with vigilance.  This way she generally avoids medications and keeps her symptoms under good control.  Recently she got caught in an unavoidably stressful situation with family.  A migraine hit her like a Mack truck out of nowhere.  She could barely walk, stumbling around, hanging onto walls and railings.  Her speech may have been slurred.  Thankfully she was able to escape to a friend’s house.  Her childhood friend, also a sufferer of headaches, offered her a handful of pills—her own prescription medications.  Earnestine struggled for the right words, and not just because her head was splitting.  If she refused, would she offend her friend, who has just rescued her from serious family chaos?  Would she trigger indignation, anger, resentment, rejection?  E found her personal values and boundaries tested, unexpectedly.  She felt ambivalent, as the core values of connection with a friend and right use of substances clashed.  She desperately desired relief from her pain, and she also needed to set an example for her boys, who were watching her response—what would she want them to do if one of their friends offered them ‘relief’?  Somehow through the fog, she found a way to acknowledge her friend’s generosity, and also explain that she was not comfortable taking someone else’s prescription medication.  She maintained her boundaries and stayed curious to monitor her friend’s and her boys’ responses.  Since that time, she continues to hold her friend in non-judgment, understanding that although she would not ever do the same, her friend’s intentions were loving.

I tell this story because I see it as a perfect example of boundaries, curiosity, and non-judgment in action:  Holding space for one’s own needs while attending to the needs of others and our relationship with them (both her friend and her sons).  Earnestine practices honoring her boundaries, which can, in some ways, be equated with her core values.  When they are challenged, she can stay in curiosity and explore the feelings that get triggered. She can withhold judgment on the feelings and simply experience them in the present moment, asking what they are trying to tell her.

This combination of boundaries, curiosity, and non-judgment, practiced regularly in small, everyday things, prepares us to face the harder situations and conversations with greater confidence.  We can trust ourselves, even if we don’t walk into any given situation knowing the right answer, to find it when we need it.  On the other side, these skills help us look back with fewer regrets, because we brought our best selves at the time.

I have learned to recognize opportunities to practice these skills, and now I resist apologizing, giving negative feedback, and talking about politics a lot less.  In fact, these are precisely the scenarios in which I can really test and hone my skills—sharpen them and improve my relational dexterity.  I almost look forward to them—sometimes.

It’s all a continuous journey, is it not?  Will we always face our fears with heroic courage and the perfect words and behaviors?  Hell. No.  AND, every day is a new chance to try.  What hard conversation might we come closer to doing better tomorrow?

*Not her real name