The positive responses I’ve had to parts one (the ‘What happened?” conversation) and two (the Feelings conversation) have been overwhelmingly positive and it’s been great to hear how people relate. Thank you.
Now I get to write about what I think is the most interesting of the three conversations that underlie every difficult conversation… The Identity Conversation
In the Identity Conversation, your sense of who you are, to varying degrees, is brought into question.
You might think you’re just having a conversation with your daughter about whether she should be allow to stay out late with her friends, or with a shop assistant on what appears to be incorrect change, or with your mother about whether you should stay home for another year with your children or go back to work. These are just a few examples of the never ending list of conversations which tend to viewed as difficult. They are difficult because, even though we think we are focused on the topic at hand, the reality of how the conversations impacts you is determined by what you make the conversation mean about YOU. In particular, conversations feel difficult if you take away self-meaning from them that conflicts with the way you like to view yourself.
For example, you may have a friend who has asked you be in her bridal party. You explain how you feel that you have too much going on in your life right now to be one of her bridesmaids. You love your friend but simply feel overwhelmed with your new job, struggling marriage, and raising children. This is a difficult conversation for you to have because it conflicts with your self-image as someone who is always a good and supportive friend. If you don’t accept the role that your friend is offering you in her wedding, what does that say about you?
Sure, logically, you know that your friend understands your situation and even when she asked you, she knew there was a high chance that it wasn’t a good time for you. You know your friendship is strong, but still lurking beneath all the logic is the subtle thought about how the current events possibly redefine how you, and others, identify you. When these subtle thoughts (and sometimes the thoughts can feel as loud as shouting) conflict with the image and reputation that you like to identify yourself with, it can take you off balance.
And keep in mind that the example I’ve just given is when you are the one delivering the bad news. It can be even easier to get off balance when you are the one making the request. What if I am denied? What are they saying about me by denying me? What if they give me a good reason for denying me?
Perhaps you want to tell your husband that you want to have another baby. Or ask your boss for a pay rise. Or tell the person that you’ve been dating that you want the relationship to be more serious. Or tell one of your children that you would like to be able to see your grandchildren more often. These are just a few of the many, many conversations in which your sense of identity could be implicated.
As with the ‘What happened?’ and the ‘feelings’ conversations, you can do much better in dealing with the identity conversation simply by having more awareness of it. Losing your balance around the identity conversation can be inevitable sometimes but it doesn’t have to cause the anxiety that it often does.
So let’s talk strategies in dealing with the Identity conversation.
The first thing to be aware of is that (among the huge array of identity issues that exist) three identity issues are common:
- Am I competent?
- Am I a good person?
- Am I worthy of love?
So when you feel/hear yourself asking any of these questions to yourself, either directly or indirectly, know that asking them is part of being human. It is to be expected that you will ask yourself these questions regularly; it is part of constantly realigning yourself with what these three things mean to you. Instead, know that it’s how you answer these questions to yourself that is more important to your sense of balance.
To enhance your ability to reply with quality answers to your identity questions, work on the following…
Become aware of your identity issues. Self-reflection is the key here. We all have them, so look for what your patters are. Notice where you most often get off balance.
Get complex about your identity. We are all shades of grey and there are some days that our identity is more one thing than another. Just because you’re often outspoken, does not mean that you are not shy sometimes. Just because you are usually very active, does not mean there is anything wrong with vegging out doing nothing. Something useful to try is adopting what is referred to as the ‘And stance’ because as part of your personality it is likely you are active AND also lazy, or clean AND at other times messy, or you are fun today AND boring tomorrow. Just because you may have done one thing today that you didn’t like about yourself, it does not define who you are. You can be something else tomorrow if you choose.
Understand that your intentions are complex too. Rarely when you do anything is it for one intention only. When you are judged by someone else, or by yourself, many times you are judging only one of your intentions. Often there is also at least one other intention that is in line with the identity that you prefer to associate yourself with.
Accept that you will make mistakes. You’re human. Constantly re-evaluating your choices and actions is part keeping yourself on track. And often what you decide is your ‘track’ will change too. So in all of your decision making and learning, it is inevitable and essential for realignment that you make mistakes.
The key reference for this article series was Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. I recommend it if you want to delve more deeply into the dynamics of difficult conversations.