Today I want to talk about owning the “I” in difficult. We have all found ourselves in challenging conversations or stressful situations. One might say life brings us a multitude of opportunities on this one. And how we deal with these difficulties can make a significant impact on how we feel, and the outcomes that we experience.
Let Me Tell You a Story.
I was having a conversation with a client the other day. She has a challenging conversation she needs to have with her partner. The situation is complicated, houses, money, and they have a child together. Yet the relationship has been struggling for a while. They’ve tried some different things to correct the situation, but she has hit a wall and doesn’t want to continue on any further in the relationship, the way they have been doing it so far. She said, “I need some space.”
This brought the conversation fully into the realm of “how do you have this kind of difficult conversation?” Especially with somebody who you care deeply about and in the case of people with children, someone you are going to continue having a relationship with for a while. And, how do you have that conversation where you say, “I need for you to move out.” Or even, “I need for you to leave me alone because I need space.” Even more difficult can be, “I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore.”
What Is Your Goal?
One of the first questions I ask my clients when they have a difficult situation that they are wrestling with is, “What is your goal?” Once they know what their goal is for the relationship or situation, it begins to clarify what actions will be useful.
No one can determine for you, what your goal is, and some goals are harder than others. For instance, let’s say I want to end a relationship and still be able to be a good parent with my ex-partner. What it takes to be able to be friendly at the end of a difficult situation is very different than if I don’t want to be friendly. There’s no guarantee of a good outcome, yet if I act like a jerk, I am embracing a worse outcome. And, this isn’t a way forward toward feeling any level of empowerment.
And, let’s be clear, there are a number of conversations that we come up against that are uncomfortable. When we come up against one of these conversations that don’t feel comfortable, we use a lot of tactics to make it easier on ourselves. We all do well in the pleasant conversations, those, those are easy. The question then becomes, “If we are going to have difficult conversations, how do we make difficult situations or conversations go as well as they possibly can?” A big part of making challenging situations better starts when we challenge ourselves to look at what makes us defensive. Basically bringing our own shit into focus.
Let’s Talk About Defenses.
When we find ourselves in a hard situation, our bodies react. We get tense, our heart closes down, and we start to think about all the reasons that we’re justified in feeling the way that we do. The rationalizations sound like, “It’s because of this. It’s because of that. It’s because of this other thing.” And those rationalizations tend to be outwardly focused. Difficult conversations tend to armor us up, and we dive in with ammo. “You haven’t been the right kind of partner I need.” “This hasn’t been the job that I wanted.” “I’m not happy because of the way you treated me.”
Basically, it’s not my fault, it’s yours. Since our attention is externally focused, as we get defensive, it triggers defensiveness in the other person. Because no one likes to be the problem. It’s a circle jerk of sorts.
Putting the “I” in Difficult Conversations.
What is most useful when we’re in a difficult situation is to find what is our part. In every situation or conversation, there are two sides of the street. Here’s the kicker, I’m only responsible for my side of the street, and you’re accountable for yours.
So, what is on my side of the street? My side of the street includes my thinking, attitude, behavior, reactions, and responses to whatever you’re tossing from your side of the street and vice versa. When challenged with a potentially hard situation, our defenses are on high alert. It’s essential that we stay very clear about our side of the street.
It’s a conscious decision to say to myself, “I’m not worried about your side of the street right now. I’m only going to take care of my side of the street.”
This requires us to do something quite unique, which is to take ownership of what is true. What does taking ownership of what is true look like? It looks like me speaking for myself. In the example with my client, it looked like her saying, “I need space, not because of anything that you’ve done wrong. You are a really good parent. I want us to be able to be good parents together. I don’t want to continue on in the manner we are living right now. I am not in love with you right now, I have been, and who knows what might happen in six months or a year. But I’m not going to be able to figure any of that out unless I create space around myself. Because this is not working for me the way that we have it structured.”
Now I’m not saying that the other person isn’t going to have hurt feelings or that the other person isn’t going to get upset. No one enjoys hearing that there is an issue, and very few people like it when people create a boundary that pushes them away. Yet, if you can find the way to stay calm, and listen, “I hear that you’re really upset.” You can influence a conversation toward the positive.
When the defenses get triggered in the other person, and they fire back with, “Well, you did this, and you did that, and you did the other thing.” The ability to stay neutral and say yes to the true parts, you know, your side of the street, is crucial. Breathe through the trigger and own what is truthful. “You’ve been distant and rejecting of me.” “You’re right, I have been distant, and that probably does feel like rejection.”
And, to be clear, when we take ownership for what’s true, it isn’t a cart blanc, “Yes, it’s all my fault, and I’ve been a terrible person. I never do anything right.” It’s not that, but it is taking ownership of what’s true. “Yes, I have been distant. I agree I have been testy with you. I’ve been short tempered. You’re right I don’t want you to touch me. These things are valid, and I’m not going to deny them.” That’s on my side of the street. Putting in the “I” means taking ownership for our part of this dance of dysfunction.
Remember, every time your finger is pointing outwards, there are three pointing back at you. So you can avoid some of the ugliness of a disagreement by being transparent. Owning what is real and not apologizing for how you feel, just holding it while staying calm and non-defensive.
I’ve had these hard conversations, many times in my own life. Owning my own side of the street sounds like admitting, “Yes, I am frustrated. I am angry and feel like I am being manipulated and I don’t like that. I’m sure it comes off feeling like I don’t enjoy spending time with you. And I’m sorry that it feels that way to you. And yet, it’s where I am right now, here’s my boundary.”
I’m not going to tell you that if you take ownership for your side of the street, the other person will too. Although the likelihood is much greater if you’re being calm, reasonable, taking personal responsibility, and listening. Shifting from listening for ammo, and instead, looking for what is true. When you take ownership of what is actually yours, it is much easier to speak for yourself and put “I” into the conversation.
Plus, this tends to lower the temperature of a conversation or situation, It reduces drama. And, as soon as you can start to minimize tension, people can reaccess their thinking.
One more thing, it’s important to remember, you also don’t have to solve a big hairy, uncomfortable conversation or situation in one sitting. It may take several conversations over time to be able to navigate through a challenging situation. Having an expectation that a difficult conversation should be a “One and Done” is maybe unrealistic.
So I, again, am not promising you that your situations will all go swimmingly well and nobody will get upset. But I will tell you that when you look at your odds, with calming down versus exploding, taking ownership for your side, owning the “I” in difficult will serve you far better than pointing your finger and saying “You.”
I would LOVE to hear from YOU!
- What difficult situation do you have a goal that seems impossible?
- How do you breathe through your defenses?
All Photo copyright retained by photo owners, everything else ©2014-2022 Lyssa deHart
article originally posted on Dec 2, 2019. Updated April 23, 2023.