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I have observed in my own life and those around me that any time we engage in personal growth or transformation, inevitably there comes a time when we have to engage in a tough conversation. As we change and grow, our needs, desires, and values change and grow. Also, as we change and grow our capacity to accept the unhealthy behaviors (drama, manipulation, passive aggressiveness) diminishes.
The bummer is that frequently those around us aren’t welcoming of this change. Not because they don’t want us to get better as human beings or be happier but because change is scary, especially if you aren’t implementing the change!!
During these tough conversations it is helpful to think of the Drowning Person analogy–if you have ever done any lifeguard training, you know that when a person is drowning their instinct is to fight back, to fight for their survival. So as someone comes to rescue them, the drowning person (acting instinctually) will try to save their own life at any cost, even if that means taking down the lifeguard. So to keep his head above water, the drowning person might push the lifeguard under water as well. Lifeguards are trained as to how to rescue this person without drowning themselves.
So too when we engage in a difficult conversation with someone. When we approach our boss, co-worker or spouse with the need to approach something differently or a reminder that certain behavior is inappropriate no matter how loving, kind or open we are the other person on some level (instinctually) may feel like they are losing control. And when we lose control we feel attacked; when we feel attacked, we tend to lash out. Similarly to the drowning person who is overwhelmed by water, feeling out of control can overwhelm people, and they go on the attack.
A typical tough conversation will start with Person A (Sara) loving explaining that she wants Person B (Jen) to talk directly to her rather than going through a co-worker. And Jen feels attacked, maybe Jen knows she has been engaging in this behavior, maybe Jen even feels bad about it, BUT she initially doesn’t like being called out on this behavior. It feels uncomfortable and out of control. So Jen attacks back and calls out Sara for taking too long at the staff meeting and then on it goes back and forth tit for tat not making any movement at all until Sara doesn’t even remember why they started the conversation in the first place.
SO rather than causing a spiral of craziness. The next time Sara goes in for a tough conversation with Jen, she can remember it might be hard for Jen to hear it at first. Even the most enlightened among us will initially feel attacked. Sometimes that feeling lasts for 30 seconds sometimes it last for 30 years. The trick is for Sara to have a clear purpose for what she wants to get out of the conversation. Some examples could be she want to be heard, she wants to come up with a new way of dealing with the situation, or she wants to be understood. Sara also needs to remember that Jen will flail, she will try to attack (just like the drowning person), and it is Sara’s job to just lovingly understand that, not try to attack back and keep coming back to the intention. It is Sara’s job to keep the conversation as calm and positive as possible and keep the intention first and foremost.
Back to the original example, if Sara wants Jen to talk to her directly, she can start brainstorming a way to make talking to her easier. It might just be a functional issue (Maybe Sara’s doors is always closed), or she might need to dig deeper and brainstorm why it is challenging for Jen to communicate with Sara. Bottom line Sara needs to keep the intention of facilitating direct conversation forefront in her conversation and be open to brainstorming ways to do that.
Tough conversations go much better when we as the instigator can have a clear intention in mind and recognize before we start that we are catching someone off guard, we are instigating a tough conversation and give the other person a lot of room to flail.
To the same degree, it is our job to recognize our tendency to flail as the person who has been confronted in a tough conversation. It is our responsibility to notice our tendency to go on the attack. When you notice yourself acting like the drowning person, it is ok to admit you are uncomfortable, apologize for attacking or just ask to take a break. If you do ask for a break, make sure you set a time to begin the conversation again.
Tough conversations are hard, but they are paramount to living an authentic happier life. The more we practice, the better and easier they become, I promise.