I recently came across a video of the 1999 induction celebration of Mr. Rogers’ into the television hall of fame. I stand in awe of Mr. Rogers because like no other human being I can recall, he achieved an outlier level of greatness – a game changing achievement – through absolute gentleness. When we think of rebels and revolutionaries, people who bucked trends, spurned conventions, and refused to conform to social pressures of all kinds, particularly when we think of men, we think of James Dean types, punk rockers, or even the rising momentum of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s oratory. But, of course, in some sense these types are conforming in their nonconformity to the gender stereotype of what a man is supposed to be. And, the problem with that stereotype (which is not necessarily the problem of the leaders who fall into it) is that it does not look deeper into what a human being is supposed to be.
Mr. Rogers did not simply repeat the structures of gender stereotypes in demonstrating his value as a human being. Instead, he understood that human beings needed to risk developing their capacity for gentleness in order to achieve our fullest capacity for greatness.
In “The What Happened Conversation, Part 1,” I suggested that our lack of experience skillfully navigating difficult conversations all too often leads us to conclude that we are damned if we do (pardon my French), and damned if we don’t. For this reason we are prone to adopt a strategy of avoidance, choosing to let the perceived doom of a looming conflict come and get us, rather than to actively assist that doom along by seeking it out and opening it up for discussion.
But, as I discussed, the flaw in this approach is that our history of making a bad situation worse by rolling head-long into it does not mean that the problem lies in choosing to engage rather than to avoid. What it means, actually, is that we have to engage the conflict in a skillful way. Avoidance will eventually blow up in our face. Yet picking up the ticking conflict bomb without preparation for disarming it, also means it will blow up in our face. Fortunately, disarmament skills can be acquired.
Last time, we looked at the skill of holding the “And-Stance” posture when initiating a difficult conversation at the What Happened layer, the surface layer of three layers present in every difficult conversation, the surface where the facts of who, what, where, when, how, and why are discussed.
The "And-Stance" is a skill that can help you avoid the truth assumption pitfall—the pitfall wherein you approach the conflict with an either/or mindset that assigns exclusive right to the truth to one of you or the other. Since you can plainly see the errors of the other, that means you must be the one who's right, right?
They are all too common, those difficult conversations we would do almost anything to avoid. And though we do try our best to avoid them, that never seems to work. Sooner or later, we get cornered by a situation grown intolerable for at least one of the parties in the mix. If no one musters up the courage to dive into the situation, someone eventually “breaks” and the vectors of the conflict fly across the room from every angle. Chaos ensues. The perils of avoiding a difficult conversation are many and complex and they merit separate attention. Today, however, I want to think about why we are tempted to embrace avoidance in the first place.
I would like to venture the hypothesis that the temptation to embrace avoidance arises not just because conversations about painful conflicts are hard. Even if such conflicts are hard, if they were reliably successful in achieving a constructive outcome, no one would choose the inevitable failure of avoidance over the promise of eventually getting what we want in exchange for facing sooner rather than later the challenges ahead.
Instead, I think the reason we are tempted to embrace avoidance is that we have so much experience messing things up worse whenever we try to talk about triggering and difficult issues. Based on this experience, we cannot help but feel doomed either way, and therefore we are less inclined to speed our unhappy fate along by opening up the dangerous subject. You may end up catching me, we say to the situation, but I’m certainly not going to help you do it!
Well, let's see if we can find a more hopeful approach to our plight.
Last time, I talked about all the ways sharing feelings feels unsafe and why it’s actually more risky to keep feelings out of a difficult conversation than it is to put them in it. I also explained that this “feelings layer” of the conversation was only part of the anatomy of any difficult conversation, there also being a “what happened layer” and an “identity layer.” Finally, I noted that the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project whose book, Difficult Conversation, presents this anatomy, recommend a three-step process for including feelings in any difficult conversation in a manner that is both wise and self-possessed. These steps are:
1.) Sort out your feelings for yourself;
2.) Negotiate with your feelings; and
3.) Share your feelings without judgment or attribution.
Last time, I also offered my thoughts on how to sort out your feelings for yourself in a meaningful way. Today, I’d like to offer some insight into the process of negotiating with your feelings and also how to share your feelings without judgment or attribution.
Negotiating with Your Feelings
The idea that you can negotiate with your feelings at first seems a little ridiculous. It sounds a little bit like playing a game of chess by yourself – playing the black knight, pretending you don’t know the white queen’s countermove. The suggestion seems to be that you should be the instigator of your own psychological manipulation. But in fact, it’s not as bad or crazy as it seems.
We all know what it’s like to NOT want to share our feelings. We know the vulnerability, imbalance, unpredictability, and wild nature the feelings by themselves often embody. We know their subjectivity, and the ease with which they may be ridiculed and judged. We know how challenging they make maintaining strategic control when other important things are also at stake. And we know that in many cultural contexts, feelings are also taboo as either unprofessional, effeminate , or simply bad taste. The cards are basically stacked against us putting our feelings on the table.
But it turns out, keeping our feelings out of a difficult conversation is actually more risky, not less, than putting them in it.
Consider the following points:
~ Unexpressed feelings can leak into the conversation through one’s affect, tone of voice, body language, facial expression, withdrawal, distance, sarcasm, impatience, defensiveness, and unpredictability.
~ Unexpressed feelings can burst uncontrolled into conversation once they have built up such intensity that we are unable to contain them any longer.
~ Unexpressed feelings make it difficult to listen because all our psychic energy is consumed in simultaneously keeping them in check and seeking their relief.
~ Unexpressed feelings take a toll on our self-esteem and relationships as you judge yourself for not sticking up for yourself and deny others the opportunity to step up in response to your sharing.
All of these aspects of unexpressed feelings can seriously hurt our chances of achieving a resolution to a conflict that serves our best interests.
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.