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Stepping Up
Written by David Lee

Starting a Courageous Conversation

After sharing with a close friend about a frustrating and puzzling situation involving another person, I asked for her perspective and insights. I was especially interested in this friend’s perspectives, given her background as a therapist.

Having offered her psychological insights, she proceeded to tell me what I should do.

As someone who does not appreciate being told what to do or receiving unsolicited advice, I bristled at this and found myself recoiling as she continued her impromptu lecture.

My old, reflexive response to these situations has been to get quiet, maintain a polite exterior, and grow increasingly more angry and resentful, while telling myself that I won’t be sharing openly with this person in the future.

I know this wounded response, born out of a childhood absent the freedom to speak my truth, does not help me be the person I want to be, nor cultivate the kind of close, open-hearted relationships I fi nd so important in life.

I realized I had a choice.

I could continue to withdraw emotionally or I could speak up.

So I spoke up.

I said to my friend, in a calm tone of voice, something like “I wasn’t asking for your advice on what I should do, I’m asking for your insights and perspective.”

Not the least bit taken aback or put off, she said “Oh…OK” and then started to share her insights minus the directives. However, within minutes, she was back to interspersing her observations with directives about what I should do.

As someone far too adept at the unpleasant art of rumination, I repeatedly reviewed this conversation over the next few days, which, not surprisingly, increased my irritation and resentment.

I thought about whether it was worth bringing it up to her again, or just letting it go. I wondered if that was simply who she was and that if I didn’t want to get lectured to or told what to do, I would simply need to not share openly with her about life challenges, as I would with other friends.

I felt sad about that option as I value deep connection and conversation, and really like this person. The prospect of a more superficial relationship where I would need to weigh what I shared was not appealing.

When I thought about bringing it up to her, I imagined her responding in a blunt, “in your face” way, as she had been that way in her younger years. As I considered that possibility, I realized that her very direct and often blunt ways from years before had softened, so the odds of that happening were small.

Because I value our relationship, and wanted it to be the best, most satisfying version possible, I decided to “put my big boy pants on” and address it with her.

With great trepidation, I texted her saying I had been thinking about our conversation and wanted to check in with her about something.

She immediately texted me back and said “I’m free now.”

Yikes…I thought…am I ready for this?

Ready or not, I called her.

I said something like: “I was thinking more about our conversation the other day and was aware of how helpful it was to get your insights and perspectives, but I’m not a big fan of being told what to do or given unsolicited advice, so… would love it in the future if I share some dilemma, if you would hold off on the ‘this is what you should do’ stuff unless I ask for advice…do you know what I mean?”

I held my breath.

“Sure,” she said in a calm, matter of fact tone of voice. She then went on to say how she gets into directive therapist mode automatically because she’s had so many friends over the years ask her for advice based on her therapy background and just assumes that’s what people want. With a chuckle, she said something like “If I forget and do that again…just tell me to knock it off.”

After hanging up and reflecting on what happened, I was reminded why I am such a believer in having “courageous conversations” versus retreating into our old, habitual wounded responses.

I have found from personal experience that being willing to notice our reflexive counterproductive responses that enabled us to survive in childhood, and then consciously choosing a more healthy alternative in the moment, is an incredibly powerful healing practice, especially when it involves close personal relationships.

Each time we choose the new, healthy response over the old, dysfunctional knee-jerk response, we weaken the hold the old pattern has on us, and build skills and behaviors that make possible wonderfully soul-satisfying relationships.

This is why I’m such a believer in having challenging conversations—even though I would prefer not to—as well as owning my wounded responses and practicing new, healthier ones.

So…what are some takeaways from this story?

1. The first step to choosing new healthier responses is becoming aware of our wounded, reflexive responses, so we can catch them when they arise. This is where a skilled therapist, mentor, sponsor, or coach can be invaluable.

2. We then need to learn the communication tools that make possible conversations that are both courageous and compassionate, so we’re able to speak our truth without attacking, blaming, or judging, and thereby approach these moments in a healthier, more productive manner.

3. When we notice we have been triggered, we can remind ourselves we have a choice. We can indulge ourselves in our old habitual ways that will get us our usual results, or we can step outside our comfort zone and try the new, more effective approaches we’ve been learning. To increase the odds that we will choose the “new and improved” approach, it helps to focus on our Why…why we care about this relationship and why we want it to be the best it can be, and why we want to be the best WE can be.

4. Before we have the conversation, it’s helpful to discharge our negative emotions so we can go into the conversation in a calm, open-hearted way. Venting to a third party, journaling, and vigorous exercise are three ways of doing that. conversation, it’s helpful to discharge our negative emotions so we can go into the conversation in a calm, open-hearted way. Venting to a third party, journaling, and vigorous exercise are three ways of doing that.

5. It’s important to challenge counterproductive stories we tell ourselves about why the person did or said what they did, before we actually have the conversation.

6. The saying “Assume ignorance rather than malicious intent” is so helpful in this regard, as well as asking the question “What might make any normal, healthy, well-intentioned person do this?” This question helps derail our internal rants about the other person and those “they did this because they’re a bad person” stories we’re telling ourselves, which only guarantee that we will go into the conversation with a counterproductive attitude and emotional state.

7. Go into the conversation with a spirit of generosity and curiosity, rather than with an “I’m going to set them straight” attitude. The more open-minded and genuinely curious we are, the more likely the other person is to hear what we have to say without getting defensive, and the more likely to share openly about where they were coming from. Also, being in a curious, openminded state obviously increases the odds we will actually hear and understand the other person’s perspective.

8. Review your plan for how you are thinking of bringing up the issue with your therapist, coach, sponsor, mentor or wise friend. I’ve found this to be a game-changer.

9. Practice Dr. Angeles Arrien’s recommendation: “Speak your truth without blame or judgement.” Share what you experienced, how it affected you, and what you would like. As part of sharing your experience with those close to you, you might want to self-disclose your awareness of the old, learned unproductive response that got triggered, so they know you are not blaming them.

For instance: “I know you were not being critical in what you said and that my defensiveness is my stuff.”

I’ve also found that being willing to own an unhealed wounded response without knowing what it’s about is very healing and strengthens the relationship.

So for instance, it might sound like: “I’m not sure why I’m feeling defensive (or hurt, or angry) right now, I just know I am.”

Examine how you receive others’ candid sharing and feedback. If you easily become defensive and combative, or fi nd yourself refusing to concede valid points or acknowledge valid feedback by other people, this reduces the chances others will bring up what needs to be said. Because my friend was so calm and reasonable in response to my feedback and request, I am more likely to share openly in the future. If you tend to get defensive easily rather than acknowledging the validity of another’s perspective, this would be a great area to work on in therapy or coaching.

Relationships offer us a tremendous opportunity to heal and grow, if we approach them with mindfulness, self-awareness, the desire to create the best relationship possible, and the desire to become the best version of ourselves. Hopefully this short story and nine take away points will help you on that journey.

 

David Lee

David Lee

David Lee is a career coach with Heart at Work Associates and a workplace relationship consultant. He is the author of the “Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker: The Courageous Conversations at Work Series.”