I’m still working to master the tough conversation.
Last night at an event I was confronted by someone telling me of a break in integrity I’d had with them 4 years ago. I’m embarrassed and confused. I can’t remember him or the circumstance he’s referring to. I apologize as best I can for my part in what is obviously a communication breakdown. I walk away upset and I know the conversation does not feel complete. I find Jill Fischer, who is a friend and not only an excellent speaker but an excellent coach. I ask her to help me work through it.
She listens to me vent, then asks “How do you want to frame this? What do you want to make it mean?”
“I want to make him wrong” I admit. “It doesn’t feel nice to raise an issue that’s 4 years old. I feel side-swiped” I can hear the judgment and assumption of guilt in my words.
“What’s the pay-off to you, of feeling that way?” Jill asks
“I get to be right. And self-righteous.” I admit.
“How important do you think that situation was to him?” Jill asks.
“He’s remembering me from a single meeting 4 years ago.” I admit. “He obviously thought it was important. That our meeting was important to him.” The situation starts to reframe in my mind.
“OK he was awkward in raising it. I’m awkward at tough conversations too.” I admit. And memory begins to return of what really happened. A group I am assigned to that I have to leave. An email sent to the group apologizing and informing them that I am leaving. Some of the emails bounce. I assume that the rest of the group will inform those whose emails are not working. Communication breakdown.
The coaching enables me to complete the conversation with him. He’s an interesting person and truly very kind. Memory floods back of having met him 4 years ago. And I am acutely aware that I would have avoided him in embarrassment in the absence of completing things.
I’ve learned that true intimacy and trust, whether it be in business or personal relationships lie in the tough conversation. And I’m still struggling with getting really masterful at them.
My early training, from my childhood, is to always be nice. Not particularly conducive to the tough conversation. I’ve lost more than one relationship for failing to be truly honest in the service of being nice. So the following are as much declarations for myself as they are tips I’m recommending:
1. Don’t delay having tough conversations, raise them in the moment. It doesn’t get easier with delay.
2. Don’t rehearse the tough conversation. It creates expectations and stories that might not be true. If you need to get coaching instead.
3. Avoid making assumptions and creating stories about what things might mean. It’s violating to the other person to assume motives, or details.
4. Stay in the world of the other person. Comparisons to yourself or other people can easily create competition instead of empathy.