Starting Awkward Conversations: Lessons from Taking a Bath
All down to Bubbles in Bishop
The common view of a mediator and conflict management coach is someone who stops people arguing or teaches someone to control their temper. I do that, however, I spend just as much time starting awkward conversations and helping people speak up effectively. You may wonder how I connected baths with starting awkward conversations. It all started the other day when I was feeling tired and aching and I knew a lovely hot soak was just what I needed. I was also thinking about a talk I was doing for a networking event called Bubbles in Bishop.
Just imagine you, like me, had a really busy tense day, your muscles are aching and you’re exhausted. You know a nice long soak with some of that lovely stuff you won at Bubbles in Bishop would make you feel better. But you’d have to trail upstairs, run the bath, undress, and you just can’t be bothered.
And you might have to clean out the bath (Or maybe you have a Cleaning Fairy–seriously they do exist, I met one the other day.) and maybe there isn’t any hot water and it takes too long and maybe it won’t work.
So you ignore your aching muscles and stress…and it gets worse. (Or you may hit the wine, which helps for a bit, but then you end up with a hangover).
How is starting awkward conversations like deciding to take a bath?
In both cases, we know what we need to do to ease the pain and that once it’s sorted we’ll benefit…but it’s the hassle in between and the chance that things go wrong that puts us off starting.
So we ignore it or mutter about our problems until they do get better, we explode or get ill. So we all put up with pain and discomfort and a real chance of things getting worse.
Unlike running a bath, few of us are taught how to start an awkward conversation and make it turn out well. However, it is a skill and you can learn it. People who can do this are far more successful in life, love and work than those who don’t. We’ll never be perfect—we are human, however, it will make life easier and pleasanter.
Looking at the bath situation highlights some important lessons for taking the plunge and having that difficult discussion.
Deciding to take the plunge
- Don’t deny or ignore the situation. I recognised my present pain and acknowledged that I could do something about it.
Too often we don’t admit our suffering–or realise we can do something about it. Ask “What pain am I putting up with?”
- Focus on the end result and the positives. I thought of a nice warm bath, the tension seeping away, the aches and pains vanishing. Ask “What would it be like if this conversation went well? How would it feel?
- Be realistic about the relative benefits and risks. Was having to clean the bath before I started such a big problem compared to my pain? How high was the chance of no hot water? What was getting rid of the pain worth? We tend to overestimate the risks and underestimate the chances of success. Try and be more objective. What’s the worst that can happen? How would you deal with it?
- What’s the alternative? There were alternatives to the bath but they either weren’t as appealing or unrealistic. Once you’ve weighed up what you want and where you are, you are calm enough to think of alternatives.
Having worked out the pain I was in and the benefits of having a bath, I was more realistic about the risks–there would be hot water, but I’d almost certainly have to scrub the bath before I ran it. That minor hassle compared to the major benefit made the decision easy. You may find that the pain is not that great, or there is another solution.
Just as I had to find the towels, scrub the bath, undress and run the bath, so you need to prepare for the awkward conversation.
- Be clear about what you need. Being clear about what is important and what you need before you start is crucial. Have you got all the facts? Is there any other interpretation of the situation?
- Do what you can to make it work before taking the plunge. Is there anything you need to do to make it easier to have this conversation? Just as I should have kept the bath clean, maybe there is something you need to do to make the situation less fraught.
- Show you care. When we take off our clothes, we feel vulnerable. We often feel like this when admitting fault and showing we care. To learn more about the power of vulnerability watch Brene Brown on TED.
- Take action. Just as I had to turn the taps on, you have to reach out.
Taking the Plunge
- Test the water No one sensible leaps into a bath without testing the water. So ask permission before you start. Here’s a suggestion–but use your own words. “I really value our relationship. There’s something that’s bothering me and I’d like your help in sorting it out. When would be a good time?”
- Take the plunge–but keep it safe. Sometimes we think the bath is fine, then realise it is actually too hot–and either need to add cold or get out. So, too, in difficult conversations, we sometimes need to take action to make sure that everyone feels safe and calm enough to talk about the situation in a way that resolves things.
There’s a lot more to starting awkward conversations than to deciding to take a bath–still, I hope this has encouraged you to work on this very important skill.
If you would like to learn more about speaking up in an effective and kind way, every fortnight I send out a short email with links to interesting articles, helpful quotes and useful books. I’m always happy to have a confidential chat with you about your own situation, just email email@example.com.