For years, my resentment built. Sample conversation...
Me: “Look at this great dress. I got a good deal on it at a thrift store.”
My friend: “No wonder. It looks really cheap.”
Finally I said, “Constantly critiquing my clothing makes me feel like I don’t want to talk to you about anything I wear. Going forward, please don’t say anything unless it’s very positive or there’s a serious problem.” I held my breath. This was probably the first time in my life I had ever stood up for myself with her.
She said, “Okay." Instantly, there was a total change! Now she's my wardrobe's biggest fan.
I realized that the insensitive comments were her fault, but the 20 years of resentment was on me. Invariably, people will say things that make you feel bad, either on purpose or by accident. For years I just swallowed it, but that’s a relationship killer. So I’m trying to change. Below are some tips that help honest conversations go better for me. I hope they help you, too. (NOTE: Please take this with a grain of salt and think carefully about what will work best for your situation.)
1. Prepare the person with an opening like, “I want to talk about how I felt about our conversation” or “Do you have a moment to discuss what happened at (fill in the blank)?” Don’t just jump in. Cue the person to listen.
2. Present information. Don’t attack. Stay calm; speak slowly. Work through your raw emotion beforehand in a practice dialogue own your own, a talk with someone who’s not involved, or a journal entry.
3. Do not accuse. Say “I’m not saying that you wanted to make me feel this way” or “I’m sure you didn’t mean to come across like this.” If you think they might have, inquire: “Is how you wanted to make me feel?”
4. Give your feelings a name. Say, “I felt (fill in the blank).” Be specific like “hurt” or “discouraged” or “you didn’t care about my feelings” or “you weren’t listening to me.” Help the person understand.
5. Explain a little bit more with a few details. “When you interrupted me with your thoughts, I felt like you didn’t care about what I was trying to say” or “When you instantly said, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ it seemed like you thought I was an idiot.” Just a few sentences.
6. Give the person time to respond, and be open-minded about what she says. This is about building a bridge.
7. If the person seems open, offer a suggestion like “It would be great if you could listen more before giving your thoughts.”
If you want an example, read on...
Recently, another friend said, “Hearing about your health issues makes me feel better because mine aren’t nearly as bad. You can barely function, but at least I can still do things that I like to do.” - Argh!
Here’s what I plan to say: “When you said you felt good because your health problems weren’t as bad as mine, I felt sad and hurt because you reminded me of something I was already upset about. I know you didn’t mean it that way, but listening to how you can do things that I can’t was not encouraging.”
Since my friend has a tendency to say whatever comes into her mind without considering the impact on others, I want to add, “Do you feel like you thought about the effect of your comment before you said it?” I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”, but I’m not sure she’s aware of that, so I want to call her attention to it to see if I could help her change. I’ll have to feel out how the conversation is going before I decide whether to do that.
After I get her response, and if she seems receptive, I might say “If you’re open to it, I could tell you some things that would have made me feel better.”
If she agrees, I’ll continue “It might have been good not to say anything at all to avoid reminding me of my issues. But you could say something positive like, 'I’m encouraged to hear you still try to pursue things that are fun for you.' " (NOTE: Offering alternatives is not always appropriate, but it can work well if you think the person might be open to changing.)
So say something! Even if you don’t get a positive response, you will feel good that, as far as it depended on you, you did the right thing for your relationship. To be frank, It’s still terrifying. My stomach roils beforehand. It’s hard to eat lunch. But it’s made a big difference. In fact, I’ve discovered that often people are grateful. Recently I told somebody that I felt stressed out while talking to him because he seemed so intense. He realized that his intensity, which he always thought was just a personality trait, is really due to anxiety. He emailed me that he’s been asking other people and learning a lot more about how he comes across.
He said, “No one’s ever told me something like that before. I really appreciate your taking the risk.”
That made me feel a lot better about my inability to eat lunch. It is totally, totally worth it to have the chance to help a relationship. We all need it!