How to "Feel" Your Way Through Difficult Conversations
When Mike and I were dating, I firmly believed that we were GREAT communicators.
We talked about everything and seemed to always be on the same page. We were able to honestly express what was on our minds and we were skilled listeners. We both felt heard and affirmed in our conversations.
But about 7 years into our marriage, all the pressures and stressors in our stepfamily reached a boiling point and it all fell apart. We found ourselves unable to communicate effectively. We were quick to disregard each other's viewpoint and jump straight to defensiveness. Communication was painful and we couldn't agree on anything!
At that point our communication was either unhealthy and damaging…or it was non-existent. As relational tensions grew and unresolved issues piled up around us, our marriage loomed precariously on the brink of disaster.
The truth is that communication is hard work. It's easy to be good communicators when things are going well. But when challenging circumstances and different opinions put us on opposite sides of the table, communication can quickly break down.
If you aren't willing to put in the work and move forward toward healthy, productive communication you might end up where Mike and I were — feeling stuck, hopeless and ready to call it quits!
I've had some time to think about that painful season, and I've discovered 3 realities about why communication gets so hard and why we sometimes avoid difficult conversations.
Do No Harm
In close relationships, it can be awkward and tough to be 100% truthful if you believe that your honest communication is going to hurt their feelings or make them angry. You may not want to rock the boat or cause unwanted conflict.
You could be avoiding difficult conversations because you're afraid of being hurt yourself. You certainly don't want to feel misunderstood or disregarded if what you share ends up being ignored or is used against you.
The Hiding Place
And sometimes it's tough to be vulnerable about what's really going on. You might feel anxious because in order for clear understanding to happen, you'll need to communicate something that's deeply personal or revealing.
Yes, there are risks when you choose to enter into a difficult conversation. It often seems easier to simply avoid these risks altogether. But will avoidance actually solve the problem and lead to more connection in your relationship?
The Heart of the Matter
Early in our marriage, I remember Mike and I walking around on egg shells for weeks after a disagreement about how I was parenting my daughter Annika.
Mike thought that Annika should have more responsibility around the house. I argued that she wasn't capable of doing what he expected. Then I snapped at him and insisted that he just butt out and let me parent my way!
We spent way too much time avoiding the real problem…AND avoiding our feelings.
Maybe you noticed something about the realities above — around why communication gets so hard. All of them involve some really strong feelings!
Our disagreement wasn't just about my approach to parenting, although that appeared to be the problem at hand. But the heart of the matter were my feelings around the problem.
I was paralyzed with fear, insecurity, guilt and an uneasy competition with 'the other home'. Those were the actual feelings that were driving my parenting decisions, and my attitude about Mike's opinions.
I was uncomfortable with my emotions. I didn't want to expose what was really going on inside.
So, I slid into 'my hiding place'. All communication shut down, Mike and I distanced ourselves and the problem continued to go unresolved.
Have Your Feelings (Or They Will Have You)
"Have Your Feelings (Or They Will Have You)"… This is actually the title of Chapter 5 in a book called Difficult Conversations. The authors say this about our feelings:
"Feelings are too powerful to remain peacefully bottled. They will be heard one way or another, whether in leaks or bursts. And if handled indirectly or without honesty, they contaminate communication".
Contaminated communication is what led to our 'walking on eggshells' dilemma. It was miserable!
Most of us really just want to get down to the business at hand and solve the problem. We'll look at all the facts, weigh the pros and cons and eventually arrive at a reasonable solution. That all sounds great, doesn't it? But the problem is… as the authors put it:
"…When feelings are at the heart of what's going on, they are the business at hand and ignoring them is nearly impossible. In many difficult conversations, it is really only at the level of feelings that the problem can be addressed."
Now that we understand how crucial it is to identify our feelings around a problem, and then communicate them clearly, how should we go about it?
Honesty, I'm no expert on this. It's taken me years to develop my communication skills and be able share my true feelings with Mike.
Thankfully, Difficult Conversations offers three guidelines for expressing your feelings that should help ease your anxiety and make an effective conversation more likely:
1. Frame Feelings Back into the Problem
Accept that your feelings are an important part of the problem (and your relationship). Just about every problem will involve some strong feelings.
Sure, it might be possible to define a problem without sharing your feelings, but that's not true problem-solving. Usually those unexpressed feelings will resurface and lead to unhealthy cycles of conflict and misguided communication.
Too often we confuse being emotional with expressing emotions clearly. They are different. You can express emotion well without being emotional, and you can be extremely emotional without expressing much of anything at all.
A simple way to begin expressing your feelings is by admitting that you're uncomfortable with your feelings, or that you aren't sure they even make sense.
Then share your feelings. The goal is to let them be known. You can decide later if you need to actually do anything with your feelings.
2. Express the Full Spectrum of Your Feelings
When I was finally able to express all of my feelings to Mike about why I was paralyzed in my parenting, the nature of our conversation changed.
We were no longer battling each other from opposites sides of the table, we moved to the same side of the table and began to problem-solve with less conflict.
Mutual support and understanding grew as we continued to explore both our feelings around the problem. We started to feel connected again and the egg shells began to disappear!
This is only possible when you're able to put the broader spectrum of your feelings into the conversation, bringing depth and complexity to the discussion.
Once I shared what was really going on, Mike was able to understand the underlying emotion linked to the problem and how his frustration and lack of empathy was negatively impacting me.
3. Don't Evaluate — Just Share
When expressing your feelings, do so without judgment or blame. When we jump straight to evaluation mode and defend the legitimacy of our feelings, we're undermining their expression.
In our case — when I accused Mike of being overbearing and unrealistic, he naturally became angry and wasn't able to listen well. At that point I really wasn't expressing MY true feelings around the issue, but had moved straight to judgement of how Mike's perspective was impacting me.
A better approach is to use "I feel" statements that keep the focus on feelings and makes it clear that you are speaking only from your own perspective. Here's an example: "When you criticize my parenting, I feel overwhelmed and pressured because I'm dealing with some fear and insecurity around parenting my daughter".
Beginning the conversation in this way is less likely to ignite an argument. Instead, it could open up an opportunity to fully engage in sharing feelings and move toward productive problem-solving together.
Moving Forward with Feelings…and Better Communication
I've come to realize that communication is a skill that we can all improve on. We don't have to stay stuck in painful patterns.
Our communication is only as good as our ability to honestly express our feelings. This is tough stuff, but not impossible!
Even after 18 years of marriage, I still sometimes think it would just be easier to withhold my feelings and not rock the boat. But, I'll leave you with one key thought from Difficult Conversations that is helping me continue to improve my communication with Mike.
Here it is:
"Don't undervalue your own feelings and interests. When important feelings remain unexpressed, you may experience a loss of self--esteem, wondering why you don't stick up for yourself. You deprive your colleagues, friends and family members of the opportunity to learn and to change in response to your feelings. And, perhaps most damagingly, you hurt the relationship. By keeping your feelings out of the relationship [and the problems], you are keeping an important part of yourself out of the relationship." (italics added)
QUESTION: When problems pop up in your stepfamily, how can you begin to share your feelings more honestly? Leave a comment below…