Many years ago, I was inspired by the Landmark Forum to initiate a difficult, long overdue conversation. For many years, I was consumed by resentment, hurt and anger towards my father, an emotionally distant man who was absent from most of the defining moments of my life. I blamed him for his lack of attention and I blamed myself for not being worthy of it.
After much reflection, what I finally realized was that the intense, unaddressed emotions were taking up so much mental bandwidth that I wasn’t free to experience new, healthy emotions and relationships. When I ultimately mustered up the courage to discuss my concerns with him directly, I felt an incredible sense of liberation. That is not to say that our conversation healed all wounds but it allowed me to feel that my voice had been heard. And it shifted the dynamic in our relationship from that point forward.
What conversation are you not having? Which relationship is undermined by your unspoken thoughts and feelings? I recently spoke with a client who has been struggling with interpersonal conflicts with a co-worker for years. The underlying hostility and tension have created a toxic work environment that has made it difficult for each of them to be successful. But, until now, no attempt had ever been made to address the issue directly. At our last meeting, my client made a commitment to reach out to this co-worker and attempt to make amends.
Having that conversation you’ve been avoiding is certainly not easy or you would have done it by now. But can it be any more difficult than coping with the repercussions of not having it? How much do you and those around you suffer because nobody is willing to face the issue head on?
If you’re thinking about initiating a difficult conversation, here are some tips:
1. Be kind.
It is difficult to set aside negative emotions but until you have the conversation, you never truly understand what underlies the conflict. More often than not, a lack of communication, rather than the other person, is to blame. Approaching a person with kindness will yield far greater results than taking a defensive or hostile stance.
2. Be direct.
One of the likely reasons you’re in this situation is that you haven’t clearly articulated your concerns in the past. Take advantage of this opportunity to be transparent about what you are feeling. The more that is subject to interpretation, the more room there is for miscommunication.
3. Be vulnerable.
It’s difficult to be vulnerable when you’re angry with someone. Your self-protection instincts kick in, causing you to be on guard. To experience a meaningful breakthrough, though, you must be willing to candidly share your feelings. And by expressing your own feelings, you create a safe environment for the other person to share vulnerably as well.
4. Be constructive.
It’s great to finally have an outlet for your frustrations but, at the end of the discussion, you want to walk away with a plan for how you’ll relate differently in the future. Once you’ve had a chance to discuss the issues, allow time to talk specifically about what will change when you leave the room.
5. Be patient.
No matter how successful the conversation, things are unlikely to change overnight. New patterns of interaction take time to establish. Be patient and continue to keep the communication lines open.
I understand how difficult it is to take the initiative in these cases. Years ago, a close friend and I had a disagreement that led to a larger conflict that neither of us was comfortable addressing. When a trusted advisor suggested that I approach her, my first reaction was, “Why should I have to take the first step? She is the one with the problem.”
I thought that I was exerting power by leaving it up to her to contact me. My trusted advisor helped me to realize that I was actually giving away my power. By waiting for her, I was allowing her to dictate the terms and I was allowing myself to remain consumed by frustration.
Taking the first step is not a sign of weakness; it’s a demonstration of strength and leadership. Rather than continue to be held hostage by your fear, resentment, or anger, take ownership of the situation. You can’t control the outcome but you can control how you manage the process.