How do you take a challenging relationship — personal or professional — and transform it into one built on trust, respect and intimacy?
Last week, I outlined four steps for generating this kind of breakthrough. The first step is that both parties must genuinely want to take the relationship to a new, better place and commit to having the necessary conversations. This week, we’ll examine the second step: Complete the history of the relationship by fully getting each other’s reality and experiences. This requires an honest, open, rational conversation about the past.
Setting the Stage for Change
Start by setting the time and place for the conversation. Obviously, if possible, do it in person. However, if it’s not possible, don’t delay the conversation. Do it via phone or any other platform, like Skype or FaceTime. If you think you can only achieve breakthroughs when sitting in front of someone, that is not true. I have had many breakthrough conversations via phone, and I have seen others do the same. On the other hand, I have seen too many people avoid and procrastinate the difficult conversation because they felt they couldn’t do it in person. My experience is that most of the time it’s better to have the conversation not in person than not having it at all.
The purpose of this second step is to fully understand each other’s reality, experiences, perceptions and feelings regarding the history of the relationship.
It’s best to take turns. One person communicates while the other person listens, and then you switch sides. Do not interrupt each other unless something is unclear and you need clarification. There should be no pushback or arguments because you are sharing feelings, perceptions and experiences, not facts and truths.
For example: In one of my sessions, person A and B were having a conversation to generate a breakthrough after a falling-out that occurred a year earlier, which caused them to stop trusting each other and collaborating. Person A was expressing his feelings to person B, and he said, “I was really offended by your comment in the meeting we had last year. I felt dismissed, disrespected and demeaned.” That evening over dinner, when I was asking people how their conversations went, person B said to me: “It went well, but I still disagree with how person A took my comments in the meeting a year ago. My words were not offensive, dismissive or disrespectful…” It took me a while to make him see that whether he agreed or disagreed with person A’s feelings was irrelevant and that the real opportunity in the conversation was to fully stand in person A’s world, get how he has been feeling, and get that how he has been feeling is in fact valid. Person B’s reaction is common. That is why I always advise people who are pursuing breakthrough conversations of this type to truly listen, without judgment or defensiveness, and genuinely seek to understand. This way, they are not pointing fingers, assigning blame. Instead, they are sharing their reality. It’s not about who is right or wrong. Instead, it’s about understanding each other so you can move forward.
State Your Feelings, Not the Facts
Sometimes in order to complete the past people have to discuss the events that took place in the relationship. This is often a more challenging topic as most people, especially when they have baggage and emotions, don’t do a good job distinguishing between the facts and their interpretations or feelings that followed what happened. In addition, many times people simply remember things differently, but everyone is convinced their version is the truth. And when people are at odds with each other, they tend to feel that the other person is maliciously lying about the situation.
But when people really want to have a breakthrough, it is easier for them to realize that often it is less important to agree on the facts. Sometimes what is equally or even more important is to understand and accept how the other person experienced what happened.
For instance, someone might be upset with another person because they are always late to appointments. They may say, “You are always late. You don’t respect my time, or me for that matter.” The other person may say, “That’s not true. I was only late six out of the last ten times. You are exaggerating.” I often coach people on this. It doesn’t matter if it was 10/10 or 6/10. It still left the other person feeling disrespected. In order to have a breakthrough, you need to understand and accept how your being late — whether six or ten times — affected the other person.
When people can accept the validity of each other’s reality — the feelings, not the facts — that’s when the magic begins.
Here are some angles you could use to share your reality with the other person:
- “My experience and feelings about you and our relationship has been …”
- “I’ve always felt your view about me and the relationship is … and that has made me feel …”
- “I started to feel this way when …” (share the event that triggered it, if you recall)
- “When this happened, I felt …”
- “Ever since, it has affected me in the following ways …”
- “It has prevented me from doing the following things …”
- “It has cost both of us the following tolls …”
The only way this conversation will work is if you are both willing to close your mouths while the other person is speaking, so that you can open your ears and open your heart.
When each speaker finishes talking, the listener should say “thank you.” You are expressing your gratitude for the other person’s honesty, courage and willingness to share his/her feelings.
By approaching the conversation with gratitude, you are more likely to listen, rather than simply wait for your turn to talk. For instance, I’ve noticed that when people raise their hands to speak in meetings, they tend to shut their ears. Even if during the time their hand is raised their issue is addressed or resolved, they don’t hear it because they’re in waiting-for-my-turn mode.
The words “thank you” tend to open people’s hearts so they can let the other person’s truth in, acknowledge it, own it and live in peace with it. Expressing gratitude is also a generous way to acknowledge the other person’s courage and commitment — and the validity of his/her feelings. This in turn encourages more sharing and communicating.
Get to Zero
After both people have spoken, and if you’ve both genuinely shared and listened without getting defensive, what you will be left with is a sense of emptiness, “nothing” — a clean slate — and the question “So, now what?”
Only when you get to this place, when there’s no fight left, can you zero out the past. What will naturally follow is a new sense of possibility, hope and excitement for the future of your relationship.
So, what do you do from here? How do you build something new from “nothing”? Stay tuned for my next blog.