It’s hard to stand up for yourself.
We may fight on behalf of others or stick up for blatant injustices in the world, but when it comes to ourselves, some of us have a hard time.
I grew up with amazing models of love and compassion. My parents loved us unconditionally and showed love to others by defending the disadvantaged.
But I had no models for dealing with personal conflict — at home or in public. Back then, the big subject matter experts were the advice columnists in the newspapers.
People sent them letters like this,
I hate my mother-in-law. She’s so mean! She criticises my children. She criticises the way I keep my house. She criticises my cooking. What should I do?
The “expert” would respond:
Never invite your mother-in-law to your house again. Tell her that she’ll never see her grandchildren grow up.
Or, send her an anonymous note to tell her what she’s doing wrong.
Ouch! This was the advice people gave back then… there were probably a lot of anonymous notes left back in the day.
But whether we have the skills or not, the need for crucial conversations exists.
If you learn these skills early in life, you’ll be able to face issues as they happen. But if you learn them after you’ve already experienced personal conflict, you’re not too late.
You can go back.
Here’s how I know:
Falling Short of Crucial Conversations
In my early career days, I faced the need for crucial conversations almost immediately. A man many levels above me in the organisation sexually harassed me verbally for over two years.
I can remember lying in bed at night thinking, “What did I do to deserve this? Am I dressing wrong? Is it something I’m saying?”
I even talked to my manager, “Hey! I need some help. Please talk to Bill.”
He said, “No, that’s just how he is.”
Nothing was ever said to Bill — by me or anyone else.
Later, in another organisation, I met challenges in working for my manager. I was failing. I wasn’t successful… and I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I went to our company psychologist for help. I asked him, “What can I do better to make this relationship work?”
He gave me great advice. But, before I could act on this advice, my manager burst into my office. He said, “I just heard from our company psychologist …” and he relayed the entire contents of our conversation.
I was in so much trouble… and yet I said absolutely nothing.
Later Is Better Than Never
We all know that sooner is better than later — but later is better than never.
Years after the incident with my manager, I learned about Crucial Conversations. I read the book and adopted the skills into my life.
One day, my daughter and I were talking about the struggles we’d faced with body image. She asked me, “I wonder why Bill harassed you like that?”
I had never thought about that before. So, I did some exploration into his background to see what was going on. I found out he was severely abused as a child. He came out of that experience with an “I’ll get them before they get me” attitude.
As I began to understand his circumstances, the hatred left my heart. Instead, I felt sadness and compassion for his situation.
I knew it was time to address the personal conflicts I had all those years ago.
First, I went back and contacted the psychologist and recalled the events to him. He said, “Thank you so much for calling me. I thought about that event so many times. The reason I called your manager was to try to help. I thought I could make an advanced phone call and make the situation better. I never anticipated his harsh reaction. I crossed an ethical line and I’m SO sorry. That is not what I intended.”
That’s not the story I’d carried around all those years. I’d been telling myself he was colluding with my manager. I never thought about it as an attempt to help me. So, I filled my heart with forgiveness as a result of our conversation.
As for Bill, we never talked. By this time, he’d passed away. But, because I went back and learned his story, I now carry memories that are far different than the stories I told myself for years.
When I gave Bill back his humanity, I got my humanity back as well.
When I quit hating him, I was a better person too. Forgiveness is one of the most amazing results of crucial conversations — for us and for them.
So many times we think that we can’t go back and master our stories — they happened too long ago.
But, you can go back.
Crucial conversations have no shelf life. If you have some crucial conversations you’ve been delaying, do something about it.