Sometimes, the toughest part of a difficult conversation is showing up.
Show up to a difficult conversation insufficiently prepared, and you’ll likely make a mess. You may make a much bigger mess by showing up too late or not at all. But what if you don’t feel ready?
Ask anybody who has ever worked with me, and they will tell you that I am a big proponent of preparation and continuous self-improvement. If I can help it, I will not walk into a situation winging it. Why would I deliberately and unnecessarily increase my chances of failure? Besides, I have too much respect for the other person to just waltz in and say what I have to say, hoping things will somehow turn out alright. So, I prepare. Thoroughly. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Well, I learned the hard way that this is not always the best approach.
Many books on communication, negotiation and conflict resolution offer a long list of strategies to prepare for a difficult conversation, and an even longer list of tools for conducting a fruitful dialogue. While this is probably intended to instill hope in us mere mortals that even seemingly impossible situations can be managed effectively, there is a dangerous subliminal message embedded: If you do this right, success is guaranteed.
And this is where the problem starts.
Part of what makes a difficult conversation so challenging is the sheer volume of unknowns. How will the other person react? Will he or she understand? Withdraw? Cooperate? Break down? Yell? Retaliate? Will I be able to respond in a way that’s appropriate and effective? Control my own emotions? Do this right?
In the average potential conflict situation, we can deal with those unknowns. We prepare as best as we can, and then we step up to the conversation. If things don’t go so well, it’s not the end of the world – we’ll do better next time.
But what if the stakes are really high? You have to tell someone you love that you’re unable to keep a promise you’ve made, and this might end the relationship. You have to inform your key employee that certain behaviors are unacceptable, and he may walk. You have to give your client – the one who makes up 80% of your revenue – advice you know he won’t like, and you may be replaced. Those unknowns can be rather anxiety-producing, because there may not be a next time to do better. There may only be one chance to get it “right.”
When dire consequences loom, we often become fearful and hesitant, especially when we are blessed – or cursed? – with a sense of humility. We are only too aware of all the things that could go wrong, and we’re not ready. We continue to analyze and agonize over the “right” way to approach the topic. We buy into the subliminal message If you do this right, success is guaranteed. But what on earth is the “right” thing here?
So we don’t have that dreaded conversation. At least not just yet.
And this is where the bigger problem starts.
While we are waiting to be ready for that dreaded conversation, a host of bad feelings are piling up. Fear. Guilt. Shame. Resentment. And as the pressure builds, we feel less and less ready, until we really don’t want to deal with the situation. Eventually, when we can’t avoid the conversation any longer, the other person’s blowup over the underlying “issue” is eclipsed by the blowup over the question: Why didn’t you talk to me about this earlier?
Because we postponed the conversation too many times, the other person now feels disrespected and disregarded, wondering what else we are holding back and whether we are still trustworthy.
Ironically, our honorable desire to handle the conversation well, our dedicated preparation out of respect for the other person, our hesitation for lack of hubris on our part, and our fear of making a mess has created the very mess we were trying to avoid, plus a much bigger mess on top of it.
The moral of all this: Sometimes, we just need to show up and be prepared to make a mess. Ready or not, here I come. While we may hope that more preparation will guarantee success, not having an important conversation in a timely manner only guarantees failure.
If you fail to try, you will fail. Success requires showing up.
We can’t let our fear of not being ready stop us. There is always room for improvement and more preparation – if that’s our measure, we’ll be getting ready forever. Let’s show up before the mess is too big to manage. If the conversation doesn’t go as well as we hoped, let’s treat it as a learning experience, and no matter how hesitant or scared we may be, let’s continue showing up. In my book, that in and of itself is success.
Ask a martial artist who has been invited to test for the next rank whether she feels ready. Right. She’ll get beaten up. In the deliberately stressful testing situation, she’ll forget stuff she has known for years. She’ll embarrass herself in front of the masters and be even more embarrassed about making her sensei look bad. She’ll be pushed way beyond her limits. And after all that, she might be sent home humiliated and without a new belt. Ready? It doesn’t matter. She shows up for the test because she’s been invited and that’s the Black Belt way:
Prepare. When it’s time, show up.
Do your best. If you fail, try again.
A Black Belt is a White Belt who didn’t quit.
Where are you showing up today?