When we experience difficult conflicts, part of the reason they are difficult is that we are not just confronting someone else; we are also confronting ourselves. One common form of conflict involves us receiving feedback that is painful to us. We find ourselves objecting to whatever it is, unwilling to accept delivery of the message being sent to us, in conflict with it.
What we are so often unable to understand is that there is a reason for our strong reaction to such feedback: the feedback challenges a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, about the way we show up as a human being in the world. We all need confirmation that we are competent, good and lovable people. This sense of ourselves is our identity. Over time, we develop identity stories that explain why and to what extent we are competent, good and loveable beings. But at times, we are confronted with feedback that is difficult to face because it suggests we are not who we thought we were, we are not who we have claimed to be to ourselves. Confronting ourselves in this way is no picnic.
Figuring out how to cope with such identity confrontations is one of the great offerings contained in one of my favorite books, Difficult Conversations.
Difficult Conversations is the product of the Harvard Negotiation Project. After hours and hours of talking with thousands of people about the conflicts in their lives and the difficult conversations they were trying to navigate around those conflicts, the project's leaders were able to propose a model of the universal anatomy of all conversations about conflict. Basic to this model is the identification of three separate conversations or layers present in any given difficult conversation: (1) the What Happened layer, (2) the Feelings layer, and (3) the Identity layer. When we try to communicate with each other about emotionally triggering subjects that give rise to pain and stress, we are inevitably required to navigate different dynamics at each of these three layers, each with its unique pitfalls and opportunities.
Today I want to spend a moment discussing the Identity layer.
It is true that we each subscribe to our own unique collection of identity stories, but what is most important is that we rarely do so consciously. We don’t say to ourselves: “Today, I’m going to sit down and write the story about why I am lovable.” Nor would such an effort be as persuasive to us as is the story we develop in many ways unconsciously from our experience of life, our environment, models, values, culture and innumerable other influences. Our minds are always busy, so much so we often aren’t conscious of the thought structures we are building as we absorb and integrate our experience and environment.
The reason the identity layer of any difficult conflict or conversation is so challenging is that, although we know we don’t like the feedback we are receiving, we don’t know why our reaction is so strong. We don’t know that the feedback is actually challenging our inward claim that we are a good person precisely because we are not fully conscious of our identity story that explains what it means to us to be a good person and how it is that we think we live up to that definition.
Here I stand, being told, for example, that I have created a big mess and have not taken appropriate responsibility for it. I am unable to bring into my immediate awareness that a central criteria I carry around for what makes a good person is his ability to admit to and make amends for his mistakes. Instead, I look blankly at the person accusing me of avoiding my responsibility like an animal stunned by the headlights of oncoming traffic. Physiologically, my adrenaline system is engaged. A flicker of the fight or flight instinct troubles my heart. I try to put words together in a response, but anything reasonable and intelligible I might usually find to say is caught in a struggle with my disoriented thought process. This is, indeed, a difficult conversation.
The authors of Difficult Conversation offer two principal pieces of advice for navigating the identity layer of such an interaction. It is advice culled from their thousands of case studies:
First, the issue is being able to regain your balance and orientation; it is not coming up with a response that will satisfy the person offering the critical feedback. We cannot avoid now and then receiving feedback that challenges our sense of identity, but we can spend time getting to know ourselves well enough that we can recognize such feedback exactly for what it is. Just because we develop our identity stories unconsciously doesn’t mean these stories have to remain beyond our conscious awareness. In essence, the authors recommend we take some time to do our self-study homework. What does it mean to us to be a competent, good and loveable person? What criteria make us competent? What is the code we follow in trying to be all that a well developed human being should be? What are the qualities that we think make people want to share another’s company and earn their admiration? In what ways do we succeed or fall short of matching these criteria, codes and qualities?
Also, let’s think about our history of difficult conversations. What patterns do we see in the things that push our buttons, in the situations that make us deeply uncomfortable, stressed or unhappy? What does it feel like internally when these buttons get pushed? The more we can understand the relationship between our experience of having strong emotional responses to conflict and the identity stories we use to account for ourselves, the easier it will be in the next difficult conversation to understand why particular feedback is so painful: “Oh, what they are telling me basically questions the validity of my identity story about being loveable!” By making yourself more conscious of what is happening to you, you will be gaining the ability to breathe and be present with the person offering the feedback. You will be able to genuinely communicate that the feedback is important to you because it is: it involves one of the key bricks in your identity construction. You will also be able to make a respectful and reasonable request for time to process the feedback if you are unable to respond as well as you would like at that moment. Then, with time, your understanding of your identity story will help you figure out the appropriate response to the feedback being offered.
Second, we need to learn to accept and nurture our complexity. Our goal is to learn to integrate new feedback about ourselves in a healthy and balanced way. Just because I may have failed to live up to my code for being a good person on this occasion does not make me a bad person. In fact, it is my commitment to continuing to grow and improve that takes me into more challenging contexts where my skills as a good human being are bound to be tested to new limits. Falling short of my goal in any new context is just part of the process of growth. We are ever works in progress. It is my ability to integrate the lesson from that failure and maintain my quest to further develop and live up to my code that makes me (a) good (b) at being an ever growing human. Learning to maintain the importance of our always evolving code while keeping our failures to live up to that code in proper perspective can make navigating the identity layer of the conversation almost easy and a much more interesting and valuable experience.
Here at Family Tree Mediation, one of the services I offer is communication and personal development coaching. If you are looking for help preparing for a difficult conversation, wanting to improve your communication skills generally, or seeking a support vehicle for clarifying and pursuing your goals for your ongoing evolution, I invite you to give me a call to schedule a coaching session at (650) 762-8733.
Oh, and I can't recommend highly enough this terrific book!