The challenge of direct and healthy communication is a regular topic that comes up in therapy sessions (and in daily life, for all of us). Sometimes, we find ourselves mired accidentally in reality tv-worthy dramas. Unnecessary disputes result from assumptions made but never expressed. Differing opinions aren’t fully unpacked and people assume the worst of one another. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is an (un)healthy dose of silent treatment with which to contend.
Straightforward communication is routinely avoided, even by the best communicators among us. Why does communicating present such a challenge, when we know the outcomes of poor communication are so, well, poor?
The Problem of Fear
Well, to start, confrontation is capital “S” Scary. At the heart of the matter, the fear is almost always that we will damage the relationship with the other person, or that they will no longer like us, or will view us differently. All of the following are common fears related to confrontation:
- Fear of offending the other person, or of being offended.
- Fear of ruining the relationship or making things awkward.
- Fear of being perceived as overly sensitive or dramatic.
- Fear of looking weak or unappreciative.
- Fear of retaliation.
- Fear of vulnerability.
- Fear of disappointment.
These are heavy fears, up there with being trapped in very tiny spaces or being left alone in the middle of the ocean (I mean, personal phobias, but you get the point, right?). It’s no wonder we freeze up and opt out of the difficult conversations, given the stakes!
When we recognize the root of our fear, we can decide whether or not that fear is useful. For instance, a legitimate fear of conversing with a potentially aggressive or emotionally reactive person might help us decide a conversation is not worth having (and for that matter, whether that relationship is worth having!). On the other hand, a fear of ruining a relationship with an open and lifelong friend, while scary, might be highly unlikely and therefore less helpful. It’s worth it to take the time to explore our fears and assess their value to the situation at hand.
The Problem of Self-Confidence
Frequently, clients in session will cite lack of self-trust as the reason why they don’t speak up. Boy, do I relate to this concern. What if we say something and then change our minds? What if we are being reactive and haven’t assessed the situation thoroughly? What if we aren’t justified in our feelings? We don’t trust ourselves or our feelings, especially if we’ve been shamed historically for being overly sensitive (“Why can’t you just get over it?”) or dramatic (“It’s all in your head”) and so we grow into adults who question ourselves.
It’s important to assess the reactions we have, sit with them, and take them seriously. Sometimes, they come from Parts of us that are reacting due to experiences we’ve had in the past, such as trauma or loss. It’s important to recognize that this does not invalidate the reactions! We can sit with them, identify where they are coming from, and then assess what they need from us. At times, we’ll be able to take care of them on our own. At times, we will decide that it’s important to speak up for them. Either way, we can be confident that there’s no way that we “should” feel, and that our emotions are okay.
The Problem of Time
Finally, practicing direct communication is frankly exhausting. In reality, if we addressed every situation in which had conflict or probably should communicate more deeply or honestly, we would do nothing but have emotionally difficult conversations all day long. For many of us, our calendars are already filled to capacity with work, family, children, friends, and all the tasks that take up everyday life. Because these things are (to varying degrees) often easier than scheduling a direct and anxiety-producing discussion, we focus on them and put our difficult conversations on the back burner, until we’ve forgotten about them, decided they were no longer important, or just “let it go.”
We can prioritize the need to have direct conversations by how much mental and emotional space they take up. If we become angry about something and feel okay about it a few hours later, it might not be a top priority to hash it out. However, if we are up several nights in a row thinking about what we want or need to say, how we want to say it, and envisioning a situation playing out in all manner of ways, it’s likely important for us to confront the problem.
Direct and honest communication is scary, time-consuming, and takes guts. It is obvious why we so often choose not to say what we need to say, and to wait out the problem, or to avoid the conversation altogether. But often, the strength and authenticity of our relationships suffer due to this avoidance, and we cheat ourselves out of being true to our own wants and needs.