What makes a difficult conversation? It’s more than the frayed emotions and raised voices. In some cases, it’s your own identity. As our authors explain in this week’s book, Difficult Conversations, the anxiety we face in these exchanges comes from the way we must confront ourselves as much as the other person.
In fact, we often avoid the difficult conversation because we avoid what our authors refer to as “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Our identity, in this case, is our narrative. And these narratives are important things that can and should be changed when necessary.
The trouble comes when we let other people make the changes for us.
This idea that our identities are tested at every turn of the dialogue is very important. It explains why we’re afraid of what others will say about us. It explains why so many people avoid these conversations altogether. Much of this goes to the heart of some really big themes. Our authors suggest that, when in the throes of these conversations, we measure the feedback of others against three essential questions:
Am I competent?
Am I a good person?
Am I worthy of love?
The tragic thing is that we should already know the answer to these questions. There is no need for a difficult conversation with anyone on these items. If you’re reading this, I practically guarantee you are already a good person and worthy of love. The level of your competence is dependent on the topic and the scale, purely relative, but I bet you already know that. In my experience, people know if they are incompetent (or showing signs of incompetence) long before I ever have to tell them.
But again, none of this matters when the conversation gets difficult. We lay ourselves bare, in the heat of the moment, and someone can then say things that knock us completely off-balance. Little internal monologues start to emerge. “Maybe I am a jerk. Maybe I really am a fraud.”
All because someone said so. Someone who is equally vulnerable, equally frayed, and equally insecure.
There are two ways that I think we need to protect against this tendency. The first is a long-term fix and the second is an immediate tactic that you can benefit from today.
Protect Your Identity By Redefining It
For the long-term path, we have to work towards a higher, better version of our self that doesn’t allow another person’s feedback define who we are. This is vital. Whether it’s good or bad, the truth is that we decide what we are ourselves.
When we’re able to process a person’s opinions as just that, their opinions, we can better use that information in a broader set of considerations to determine our competence, goodness, and loveliness. We can free ourselves from relying on some person’s opinion. We can, in other words, enter into a higher level of adult psychological development as defined by the work of Jane Loevinger.
There are many models that suggest the same gradients but Loevinger’s work is some of the most accessible and fine-grained. In her model of ego development, Loevinger points to a stage of maturation that few adults reach called Autonomous. To put it briefly, this stage is hallmarked by the ability of a person to be independent of the larger social forces that drive towards conformity. No more bound by the strictures of “success” and “approval” from the external world, the person can formulate their own path towards self-fulfillment amidst the complexity and paradoxes of the world. Instead of thinking one minute they are terrible people and, the next minute, they are wonderful people, they can be aware that such ebbs and flows are simply the emotional exhaust of an overworked engine (their mind) and address the deeper points.
The full scale is fascinating to consider but, for today, let’s just stick to the fact that highly-developed people do not suffer from the suggestive power of someone’s angry words in a difficult conversation. The person cares, the person wants to understand, but they don’t let heated exchanges and accusations define them. If someone calls them a jerk, they don’t immediately respond with the thought, “Am I really a jerk?” Instead, they ask “Why does this person think I’m a jerk?”
So first step, be aware that difficult conversations threaten our identity because we lose our more-developed, more-mature mindset in those moments. We’re often not aware of it. We just know we want to be loved and admired. That’s a natural approach. But there’s a better one available to you. Studying the behaviors and mindsets at every stage of adult maturation (as provided by Loevinger and others) can help us see the other way.
Strengthen Your Identity With Self-Awareness
Second, don’t forget the role that guilt and/or denial plays in these situations. We often come to a difficult conversation without much sense of guilt or responsibility. We have some serious beef here, something that went wrong that we’re going to set straight, and this conversation is going to be our chance to settle the score. Until, of course, the other party talks back with some legitimate points about something we have done to them.
Such new information can be a shock. New emotions quickly emerge. Turns out you weren’t the only one wronged. Seems like they have a point here. They have a case against you, too. Now you feel vulnerable. And likely as not, the conversation quickly goes off the rails with a bunch of back-and-forth.
Our authors provide a fantastic mantra to use in these moments. I really love this and will use it from this point forward. Prior to any difficult conversation, I strongly encourage you to read these words:
Accept the following: you will make mistakes; your intentions are complex; you have contributed to the problem.
If you enter these moments with these three facts in mind, instead of the three questions that threaten our identity (am I competent, good, and worth of love?), you will be in a far more productive space. This is such an easy thing to do and it makes a difficult conversation so much more worthwhile.
If you can’t accept these three facts before entering the exchange, then avoid the talk completely. You simply can’t be open-minded enough. As mentioned yesterday, you are either defensive or open-minded; you can’t be both. Becoming self-aware in this sense leads you to drop the defenses and come prepared for a real conversation.
Try it next time and, as you do, see if the other person can hold the same awareness. If not, you’ll probably find that your exchange is less a conversation and less worthy of your time. And if it seems hard to admit these things, consider the fact that we all must do this. So replace the “you” with “we”. Pluralize it. We will make mistake; our intentions are complex; we have contributed to the problem.
For we are human. And to err is human.