Shifting Gears in Tough Conversations

Last week, I gave several workshops on communicating in difficult situations – talking to angry or demanding clients, dealing with coworkers or subordinates who speak in a steady stream of complaints, those kinds of things.

In communication-focused workshops, I like to talk about what it means to truly listen. I like to brainstorm ways to show empathy and express caring. I like to help people reframe problems as something both parties can work together to resolve rather than being embodied by the other person. I like to remind people that we don’t know what challenges and traumas fill the lives of others.

And yet, at some point, we all must draw a line in the sand.

A silly example, no doubt, but I had a brief romance with a rather stubborn classmate in college. (Happily, she now works in non-profit and local government where any remaining stubbornness is likely to be all sorts of beneficial to her constituents. Be that as it may…) During those few months, I bought a used pickup truck with a cranky clutch. I loved this truck. I loved that I had to practically stand on the clutch to shift and that people often did a double-take when they saw little ole me driving this diamond-plate-encrusted, slightly raised 4×4.

Much to my deep chagrin, the first time I let her behind the wheel, she drove with her foot on the clutch pedal.

Me: “Hey, could you, um, not?”

She had 101 reasons why it was okay, insisting that she was only resting her foot there, that she couldn’t possibly be depressing the pedal enough to harm the transmission.

I can promise you, she could have waved a magical mechanic’s wand and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was causing no harm and I still would have been irate that she wasn’t moving her foot.

That’s how we are sometimes, right? We get our minds set on something and we are the proverbial dog on a bone. In that moment, I was more like Tom the cat in the moments before Jerry’s antics led him to blow his top, steam kettle style. After all, frustration isn’t rational, it’s emotional.

And it’s personal to you. Another person might easily have shrugged off her foot lolling there, might easily have been persuaded that it wasn’t an issue. The most annoying coworker in your office almost definitely has people in her life who think she’s the best thing since tater tots; the person you love the most in this world almost definitely is loathed by somebody.

This is not about other people nor is it about their behaviors (except, of course, in the case of those rare crossovers into verbal abuse or physical threat or violence). It’s about our reactions to other people and their behaviors.

Seeing that we were at loggerheads, I found a sentence that I’ve used innumerable times since, “Please just humor me.”

She paused for a second and then moved her foot from the pedal to the floor mat. When I stopped arguing the logic of the situation with her and instead asked her to respond to my emotional needs, the pressure in the situation dissipated and we drove off.

Though not exactly into the sunset. At least, not together.