How to prepare yourself for a difficult conversation in 5 steps
‘I hate him! I hate him!’ she cried as she hurled herself onto the sofa in tears. Kitty had just seen her partner, Rob, in their local pub with a new girlfriend three weeks after they had split up. She bemoaned his insensitivity as he shamelessly showed off his new arm candy in front of her and her friends. Only months before, she had been singing his praises for supporting her as she went through a stressful redundancy process at work.
I knew Rob. He was not a bad guy. He had not intended to hurt Kitty deliberately. He just hadn’t given her feelings a second’s thought as he had set foot in the Golden Lion with the redhead draped around his shoulders. Kitty was convinced that he was only doing it to upset her when in fact he had genuinely moved on. She had sent him a number of accusatory texts and he had told his new girlfriend he was getting bombarded by ‘the crazy ex‘. Fast forward to the following Monday in the pub. The new girlfriend called Kitty ‘crazy’ to her face and the whole thing erupted in a way which was worthy of a Jeremy Kyle out-take. Kitty and Rob had yet to split assets including a house and the care of a dog. They needed to talk but their communication had now broken down.
When you haven’t moved on from a painful break-up or a falling-out with someone it is easy to be like Kitty. It is easy to consider that everything that person says or does is calculated with you in mind. This is not always true.
Nine times out of ten people are not in fact doing everything to spite you or make your life a misery: the reason you think that is because your emotions are having an influence on the way you are perceiving their actions. When you feel that you have been hurt or mistreated by someone, you may perceive the person as a threat because the way that you think is affected by your limbic system. Put simply, you are in the emotional part of your brain. (This is the part of your brain which is designed to make you run away from or fight the big, scary woolly mammoth). It is nothing to be ashamed of and there is nothing wrong with this. It is just the way that we humans are wired. Everyone has experienced this type of emotional thinking to a lesser or greater degree at some stage in their lives. Think of the last time you launched a tirade at someone under your breathe when they cut you up at a roundabout. The person’s actions caused you fear and your limbic system turned you into Potty-Mouthed Paul (or Polly).
The difficulty for Kitty is that her reaction to the ex partner made her think and say things that were inaccurate and this has now served to worsen the relationship conflict and stifle much-needed communication.
When someone in Kitty’s situation reacts or behaves from the emotional part of their brain, the person who is on the receiving end of the accusations (i.e. Rob in this situation) will feel defensive and will also go into ‘fight and flight’. This kind of conflict skews people’s perceptions and leads to wrong assumptions and misunderstandings. Communication breaks down and each party perceives the other to be saying things which are false. Listening stops and each person invests energy into defending his or her position or attacking the other person. This creates a ‘road to nowhere’ situation, leaving both people feeling stuck, unhappy or confused.
If you need to maintain a relationship for your children or at work it can be hard to sustain communication when someone believes that everything you say is false or calculated to hurt them. Conversely if you believe that everything the other person says is untrue and designed to cause maximum damage to you, you might fear communication with them and be on the defensive if you do have to speak to them.
Fear can lead to avoidance but shutting off communication is not always the answer (even though speaking to that other without losing it might feel like mission impossible). Ongoing communication in a working or family relationship is vital and necessary to help restore trust and to correct any damaging or false assumptions and misunderstandings. Maintaining open communication also helps both parties to move on and create a happy future for themselves.
Here are my five tips for dealing with a communication breakdown and preparing for a difficult conversation with someone you have fallen out with.
1. Own your emotions and take responsibility for the way you react
It is important to understand that you and only you are responsible for your fear and anger and the way that you react. No-one makes you feel fear or anger apart from you. Someone’s behaviour might trigger you to react in a certain way but it is ultimately your responsibility to manage your feelings and behaviours. Do some things to calm yourself down before you have a conversation with the other person. They key to effective communication is awareness and self-empowerment which means that you alone take responsibility for yourself. If you blame someone else for the way you feel you are giving your power away.
2. Realise that most people are focused on themselves and not on you
People are generally out for themselves and for what makes them happy and comfortable. That is not to say that all people are selfish but just that most people want to create and sustain a peaceful and happy life. People do not generally have the capacity or energy to invest in bringing others down when they could be using that energy to improve their own lives. Stop focusing on them and what they might be doing to you and start focusing on how you can improve your life too.
3. Set an end goal for maintaining the relationship
If you have children then you will want to maintain communication for their wellbeing. It is good if you’re co-parenting to make joint decisions and to co-ordinate approaches to discipline in separated families. If the end goal is your child’s wellbeing, keep this in mind. Similarly, if you are working and want to get your end of year bonus it might be important to maintain the working relationship with your colleague so that you can be happier at work and get more done. When you are communicating with the person who you have fallen out with always ask yourself whether the nature of the conversation you are having supports your end goal or takes you further away from it.
4. Get support
It is good to get support from your friends, family or from a professional when you have to have a difficult conversation with someone. Get support from someone objective however, not from someone who goads you into ‘stringing the b*****d’or ‘taking them for everything they’ve got’.
5. Be authentic
It is always good to be true to yourself and say how you are really feeling and what you really want. Prepare some notes beforehand if that helps you focus. People will be more likely to listen to you when you come from an empowered place. In addition, you will feel better about yourself going forwards which will reflect better on other areas of your life. Be aware that when people are in conflict they come from their false selves. They put their masks on and their defences up. Understand that and don’t take things too personally. Their reaction is about their position and not about you. If you can come from a place of assertiveness rather than aggression you will maintain control more easily.
If you are struggling with communication with another person and need some help or support, then please contact me.