Why You Avoid Difficult Conversations

If you spend any time reading advice or etiquette Q&A columns you will come across a question like this:
“How do I tell [person] that [something person probably doesn’t want to hear]?”

For example:

  • I babysit my grandchildren one day per week and it’s become too much – how do I tell my son that I don’t want to do it anymore?
  • My friend is high maintenance – how can I tell her to stay somewhere else next time she wants to visit?
  • I don’t want a big, fancy wedding – how can I tell my mother?
  • My elderly father wants my young son to visit – how do I tell him it’s not going to happen?
  • My husband retired and is home all the time – how do I tell him I need some time alone?

What do all of these situations have in common?
A grandmother doesn’t want to sound like she doesn’t care for her grandchildren.
A woman doesn’t want to criticize her friend.
A bride-to-be doesn’t want to insult her mother.
A daughter doesn’t want to offend her father.
A wife doesn’t want to upset her husband.

On the surface, it looks like the advice-seekers wish to protect the feelings of another person.

But is that what’s really going on? If we look closer, we see that all the questions are about something deeper: they want to take action without experiencing the consequences of the action.

For all of these people asking for advice, the feelings they are really protecting are their own. It’s not about the other person. It’s about not feeling uncomfortable.

All of the situations are ripe for generating discomfort:

  • The conversation might be difficult
  • The other person might become emotional
  • The other person might criticize and judge them

These are the situations we often want to avoid – especially when we fear conflict, disapproval or rejection – which is why most people ask “How can I do this nicely?”

Which is another way of saying, how can I do this without feeling uncomfortable?

Understand that feeling uncomfortable results from an underlying belief that what you want to do is wrong. The belief could be something like:
I shouldn’t rock the boat
It’s selfish to ask for what I want
Family always comes first
It’s rude to say no

You may not even be aware of this belief, only that you get a heavy knot in your stomach any time you are about to act in a way that goes against that belief.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation – wanting to say something but avoiding and holding back – your first step is getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

It might sound surprising, but recognizing and accepting the discomfort — not resisting and running away from it — is what makes it less uncomfortable.

From this place, you can determine the best way to handle the conversation instead of trying to make it go away. You give yourself a foundation to stand up for yourself, your needs and your values and can allow the other person to express theirs, instead of trying to manage or manipulate their emotions to keep you comfortable.

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