My undergraduate work was in Communication Studies and I would have probably thought that I communicate with others pretty well. I was once sitting in a teaching on communication and after the professor asked a series of questions I definitely needed to re-evaluate that statement. I consistently have to remind myself that “communication is transformational, not transactional”. There are three things that we often forget in the midst of communicating with others:
- It is necessary to participate (sometimes I don’t)
- There’s a mutual impact (I often believe it’s only about me)
- There’s always a context (which I don’t necessarily take into consideration)
The professor shared that he often received was what he referred to as “sweet criticism” growing up, meaning that there’s a compliment followed by a criticism. My heart immediately sank because I knew how he felt in that moment. I don’t necessarily remember how I learned this type of communication, but even when given a compliment, I am often waiting for the “but” followed by a negative. I realized this is how I assume others will communicate with me and in turn it has created anxiety, striving, and an unhealthy performance cycle. I hear, “you did okay, but this is how you do better” and as a people pleaser and Enneagram 2, this type of response when given the right trigger will throw me in a downward spiral of anxiety, being overwhelmed, overworking, and over-pleasing.
Here were some really difficult pieces I learned about how I communicate with others:
- I never learned to fight fair. I remember being in my 20’s and getting into an argument with my best friend over something stupid I’m sure. In the middle of the argument, she looked at me and said, “You don’t know how to fight fair.” She was right. I learned that the words I chose often tore people down to the bone and I learned that if I yelled those word louder than the other person, then at least my point was heard. I learned that if you attacked and hurt people with your words then you could at least protect yourself from doing the hard work in the hard conversations.
- I learned that I placate and am a blamer. After realizing that I didn’t fight fair, I became the other side of the pendulum. I stopped fighting completely. Instead of using words that hurt or attacking someone else, I just learned to say “that I didn’t care”. However, internally I would have hours long discussions blaming everyone else for their behavior because that was easier than taking responsibility for my actions and honestly, admitting to myself that I wasn’t perfect.
- Because I have lived both sides of the pendulum on how to communicate hard topics, I needed some basic phrases or skills to learn how to “fight fair”. I really took to the “gentle start” idea of helping me engage in hard conversations, allowing me to prepare better when I need to have a hard conversation rather than feeling defensive and then attacking someone or pretending like things don’t matter and then blaming others internally.
While these revelatory ideas made their way into my life years ago, it is easy to return to what I used to do. Even just recently I felt attacked in a heated discussion with a friend and returned to old ways of fighting out of default. Life is not perfect — it’s messy. Life is messy because we are in it. We aren’t perfect and never will be, yet we put expectations on ourselves (or maybe that’s just me) to be so. Well, when life and relationships get messy, how do you have the hard conversations? Do you fight fair?
Here are some practices that I’ve tried to apply to my own life that might make you think twice the next time you need to have a hard conversation:
- Do you tend to attack others? Most of the time, it’s because we feel like we’re being attacked or feel as though we need to defend ourselves. Instead of getting to that point, try excusing yourself from the conversation and say let the other person know that you’ll come back to it later, which allows yourself to take some deep breaths, and then return with regained composure to set better boundaries, so you won’t combust as quickly.
- Do you blame others? Often times, it stems from the “lack of” root: the “not enough” perfectionistic performance cycle that a lot of us live in. So what’s the root? Until you can name the emotion underneath the surface, you’ll continue to avoid acceptance, responsibility, and accountability for your actions. Emotions are hard to name for us so sit with it, think through it, journal, share, and really give yourself time to find the root of why it’s easier to put it on others than take the responsibility yourself.
- Think before you speak. Give yourself a moment to think through your response before you say it. Words hold so much power, yet I easily speak them out only to realize the impact and hurt that those words caused later. You can’t take back those words that are spoken out loud so make sure they are what you want to say. Be intentional but be loving. It’s easier than said, but speaking out of exhaustion and hurt will only make things worse.
Hard conversations will always happen — it’s part of life. But how you respond is the piece that you can control. So spend some time thinking through your hard conversation defaults. Not super proud of your responses? That’s okay, but you can do something about it. Practice and prepare for those times and give grace as you learn to fight fair. And when you don’t quite hit the mark, sincerely apologize, and then try to do better next time.