Tell It Like It Is
|by Karen L. Glooch|
|Did you ever have the dream where you forgot to go to several high school or college classes and by the time you realized your oversight you felt so freaked out that you put all your energy into avoiding your professor and the rest of your classes until you either flunked out or woke up? It's a common dream, and while it's usually related to anxiety, it's also a great metaphor for some common behavior: creating conflict by trying to avoid it. In the dream, there is a crossroads where you realize what you should do to correct the situation, but decide not to, and quickly begin to descend into the quagmire of unnecessary conflict avoidance.
Certainly, avoiding conflict is a healthy response in many situations. When an aggressive driver harasses you on the road, it's a good idea to get out of his or her way. When your manager tells you to do something in front of a group of people, it's usually best to discuss any concerns you have one-on-one. But why do we avoid conflict when we shouldn't, especially when the situation involves a partner or a friend? Why is it so hard to get it right with the people we care most about?
There are probably as many answers as there are people to why we create unnecessary conflict by trying to avoid it, but two of the most common reasons I hear are: I didn't want to hurt her/his feelings, and I didn't want to let her/him down. (Similar, but subtly different.) The irony, of course, is that by dealing quickly and honestly with an uncomfortable situation, small or large, there is a good chance you will avoid real conflict and not hurt anyone's feelings. Choosing dishonesty or total avoidance exacerbates the situation and creates exactly what you tried to avoid. How many times have you had a commitment with a friend or friends and for some reason the friend(s) is not going to follow through? As busy as our lives are, chances are it happens fairly often. "Can't make it Friday. Our week is too crazy and we're just not going to have the energy to join you for dinner." Unless canceling plans is a pattern with your friends (which is another story) or it's a special occasion that has been planned for months, the disappointment factor is minimal and the call is appreciated. Simple actions and honesty speak volumes. Making that call says you take responsibility for your feelings, your decisions, and your actions. It says you care enough about your friend and your friendship to be honest, and that you are courteous enough to give your friends time to make other plans. Personally, I'd much rather hear a friend say she's too tired to spend Friday night with me than to make up an excuse, because the reality is, I will hear the lie and my disappointment will go far beyond simply not getting together for dinner.
Why is such seemingly simple behavior so complicated? First, everyone has their own conflict barometer. For me, people have to practically draw knives before I think there is real conflict. I grew up in a family where it was okay to question authority (within reason), where expressing your opinions honestly was expected, where emotion was displayed (often loudly), and taking responsibility for ones actions was paramount. We were taught to have thick skin and not take things personally. Did that upbringing make me and my four siblings ideally suited to deal with conflict? No. I'm definitely sensitive and I struggle to not take certain things personally. But my upbringing, just like yours, laid the groundwork for each of our conflict barometers, including what we expect from others.
At work, where some might perceive a boisterous session of questioning and banter as conflict, I, and others with a similar conflict barometer, will perceive the same discussion as healthy discourse. At home, when my partner tells me to "lose those 1970's jeans", I take her opinion under consideration without much duress. When a friend calls to say she can't meet me on the boardwalk for a run, I appreciate the call. What I don't appreciate is when colleagues don't express their opinions when we're having a meeting to do just that, or my partner doesn't save me from a fashion faux pas, or I get no call at all and I'm left standing on the boardwalk looking at my watch. If your conflict barometer reaches red at the thought of having to tell friends you can't meet them for dinner because your partner already made plans with another couple, you've probably already made a list of what, in your mind, are perfectly acceptable excuses for not stating your opinion in meetings, not telling your partner her clothes are dated, or not calling your friend to renege on a run. And the truth is, that each of those excuses probably has less to do with not hurting someone's feelings or letting someone down, then it does with your own need to avoid discomfort.
That leads to two factors that influence your barometer: honesty and integrity. Think about the last time you didn't do something you said you would or failed to speak up when you should have. Were you honest with yourself as to why you didn't follow through? Were you honest with the other person? If not, why not? Be honest.
When I was a kid, any bad-assed brat in the neighborhood could have a big laugh at my expense. I was a trusting runt. I thought if you said something, you meant it. As an adult, I consider myself both street-wise and book smart. There are untold numbers of books and articles addressing the nature of conflict, and though I have read many of them, my first instinct is still to believe someone when they tell me they are going to do something. Otherwise, why listen? And if you don't listen to someone, how can you build a meaningful relationship?
At the heart of integrity is choosing to do the right thing. The surest way to build trust and demonstrate integrity is to do what you say you're going to do, and explain, quickly and honestly if you can't keep your commitments. Easier said than done, I know. But, hey, if you can weather the discomfort of being straight up with the ones you care about on the little stuff, chances are, they know in their hearts you'll be honest about the big stuff too.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 12 August 26, 2005