Do Sensitive Conversations Stress You Out?
This is a guest post by Andria Bicknell. Andria is a contributing writer and editor for Aspire. She writes about recovering from the effects of perfectionism on her own blog, Type A Plans B. Andria draws her leadership experience from ministry, business and home.
- Wes Saade, M.D.
Sensitive conversations can be incredibly stressful, particularly when there’s a lot at risk: requesting a raise, calling out a slacking staff member, or negotiating a delicate contract. The same is true in our personal lives: confronting a family member who is taking advantage of you, asking your spouse for something more in your marriage, or questioning your teenager’s approach to dating.
Some conversations are just plain hard.
I’d like to pick up where I left off in my last guest post, in which I discussed how to maintain safety in conversations. One of the key elements of a safe conversation—one in which all parties are equally able to share, be heard, and feel respected—is preserving mutual purpose. And one of the quickest ways to kill mutual purpose is to begin playing self-defeating games.
Have you ever crashed your own conversation?
To illustrate, here are two examples where mutual purpose has been buried under self-defeating games: one professional, and one personal.
Requesting a Raise
You have been exceeding expectations at work. You are knocking it out of the park! And everyone knows it, including your boss. You want to ask for a raise, and this is an ideal time to do it. You build your confidence (and your ten-point list of all your recent achievements). You approach your boss, and she turns you down. You weren’t prepared for that—at all. You deserve this raise for all you’ve done for them. Suddenly, you find yourself red-faced and raised-voice, telling her how any company would be happy to have you on board and pay you what you’re worth! Oh. This conversation has totally spiraled out of control. Did you get what you wanted?
Self-Defeating Game: You failed to prepare for what the other party might have to say. What key elements or purposes might they need to preserve? Do you have any idea? Your lack of forethought for your boss’ position on this matter has left you completely unprepared to respond with a clear head. In the heat of the moment, you gave into emotion. And it has cost you your raise, your dignity…and potentially your job.
Preserving Mutual Purpose: What might you have done differently? Well for starters, in addition to your 10-point list of personal achievements, you might have considered a list of responses your boss may have. What interests might she need to preserve? Budget considerations, timing, someone else’s recent raise (or lack of one), a position of promotion potentially opening up for you six months from now. There are any number of reasons that she may need to turn you down. Had you been prepared for an undesirable response, you would have also been equipped to see her side, even if you disagreed with her reasoning. This is precisely when mutual purpose could have reduced stress levels. Though it seems on the surface that you are on opposing sides, if you both agree that you deserve to be rewarded for your outstanding job performance, mutual purpose could have been established. And the two of you could have begun considering your options, negotiating if necessary, and moving forward—together. Always consider what the other person will potentially want to preserve.
Asking Your Spouse for Something More
You have a good marriage. You are settled into a nice little routine with one another. Nothing is wrong…though you are beginning to feel more like roommates than lovers. But with careers, children, and all the demands of life, that’s to be expected, right? You would really love to rekindle your relationship with your spouse, but how is that even possible? You decide you don’t want to rock the boat. After all, it’s not that bad. So, you try to dismiss your small discontentment as some sort of phase that all couples must go through. And you pick up an extra class at the gym to lift your spirits. Did you find what you were seeking?
Self-Defeating Game: You failed to ask for what you wanted. And to make matters worse, you actually behaved in a way that will get you even less of what you’d like to have. You would like more engagement with your spouse, more time to relax, be playful and have fun together. But by avoiding the conversation, you underestimated your spouse’s ability to hear you and respond. And you’ve signed yourself up for something that will take you out of your home—and away from your love—even more.
Preserving Mutual Purpose: Could it be that your spouse had no clue how you felt? Or, what if your spouse was feeling exactly the same way as you? What’s the worst thing that could have happened, had you shared your heart? Regardless of their response, or all the outside pressures on your relationship, the two of you could establish mutual purpose: we want a meaningful, fulfilling marriage. Then, you begin working together to figure out how to get more of what you want. This is infinitely more effective than playing games—with yourself or with your partner. It’s interesting how often we assume we know how someone else will react, so we alter our behavior to accommodate for our presumptions, rather than have a sincere conversation and allow them the opportunity to respond. Respect your relationships by engaging in them. We won’t always get a favorable response. But we honor ourselves and the important people in our lives when we commit to be authentic with one another. It gives us a starting place, and in this case maybe more date nights, flirting, and sleeping in on Saturdays. Have the courage to ask for what you want.
Identifying and Preserving Mutual Purpose
Whether the conversation is business or personal, whether with an adult or child, supervisor, direct report, or peer, identifying and preserving mutual purpose will add more meaningful conversations to your life. But the key is that you apply it sincerely. This is not a weapon to manipulate a conversation or another person. Rather, it is a tool to challenge yourself to do two key things:
- Consider what you value most.
- Consider what the other person values most.
You always have an advantage if you are able to sort through these things ahead of time, as it will help you to clarify your thoughts and deal with any strong emotions beforehand. However, even in the midst of an unexpected conversation that becomes intense, you can train yourself to practice these techniques:
- Identify what is most important to you to preserve. What is non-negotiable? And in which areas could you give a little, if needed? How might that look? What is your mutual purpose or goal here? What values do you share that you can both preserve in the process?
- Identify what will be most important for the other person to potentially preserve. What issues will they likely hold close to their heart? In what key areas might they refuse to compromise? How can you respect their values by giving them what they want most? If you are at an impasse on an issue, is there something you could reconsider, or offer, or approach from a different angle? Other people will be much more willing to work with you toward a shared purpose, if you are genuinely trying to preserve their interests as well as your own.
- Value yourself. Don’t be too quick to dismiss what is important to you. Don’t allow yourself to always be the one to compromise in a relationship, or in a conversation. Know where you stand, protect your personal convictions, and value who you are as a person, and the values that mean the most to you.
- Value the other person. The moment you bring judgment, contempt, or disrespect into the conversation, you have set yourself up to be at odds. Both sides will naturally begin defending their own views and values to the death. It’s over. Demonstrate to the other person that you genuinely respect their feelings, their wishes, and their position on the matters at hand. Show the other person that you truly respect them and find value in them as a person.
Thank you for allowing me to share with you again. I hope these tools that I’ve been applying in my personal and professional conversations will also add value to yours.
Contributing Writer, Aspire
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