So, I had to talk about something difficult recently. How do you do that? I mean, “you the reader,” not me. I know how I do it, and why.
I’m an introvert. For my purposes that means a couple of things:
Being around a lot of people doesn’t charge me up. Being 1:1 with someone, or in a small group, can. I’m not sure how typical that is of my kind, but I know my favorite parts of the work day are with “my people” in 1:1s, or with my managers. Big meetings are hard. Big social events are hard.
The other thing it means is that I’m not comfortable with a lot of spontaneous expression. I’m an internal processor.
So, when I think I’ve got to have a hard conversation with someone, I think about it a lot beforehand. I used to joke that I spent my morning commute spinning up virtual instances of people I needed to talk to so I could think through a few possible conversational directions. I though it was sort of cute to say that, but I don’t think it really leads to a good outcome.
I mean, it’s okay to decide you’re going to think about what you want to say to someone before you say it, especially if carelessness with your words could hurt them. That’s fine. We should all do that. We have these little phone rooms at work that are barely big enough for a chair, and I sometimes go into them a few minutes before I need to talk to someone about something that matters a lot and think through what I’m going to say. Sometimes I even write it down in a text file. I take deep breaths and close my eyes and settle down into myself.
The “think about what you’re going to say” strategy begins to fail when you imagine what you’re going to say and then imagine them saying something back, and then what you’d say to that and then what they might say back to that, etc. etc.
It took two things to help me realize the problem there.
The first was that one day, in the middle of a period where I wasn’t sleeping much, I realized how badly the lack of sleep was affecting my perception of things around me. Passing comments suddenly seemed like they might be insults. Hanlon’s Razor sort of went out the window.
So I had a pretty good fix for that: On mornings when I’d gotten little sleep — less than six-and-a-half or seven hours — I’d spend a few minutes on my commute thinking about that and what it meant. I’d talk to myself on my bike:
“You didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. You’re going to be feeling a little paranoid and on edge. You’re going to want to take offense at things people say to you. You’re not going to be seeing things correctly.”
Then I’d get into work and try to remember to talk to myself about that a few times over the course of the day.
Things started to roll off my back more easily. It was nice.
It also started making those little conversations with virtual people go down better. I stopped anticipating the worst, or when I would anticipate the worst I’d remind myself that I wasn’t very well rested. I’d make a little joke to myself to spin that instance down and bring up another one and try again anticipating better behavior.
You’re thinking about the ways in which that’s still broken, but this is my story of self-discovery, so either skip ahead or quit reading.
Anyhow, that was my little hack that made difficult conversations with virtual people in my head go better.
I didn’t get the second piece until I went off to a sample training for a program called Conscious Leadership.
If I had to describe Conscious Leadership in a nutshell, I’d say that it takes a lot of thinking around mindfulness and tries to make it work in a business context. If you’re at home with Zen Buddhism, you’d hear some things that are familiar to you.
I could go on and one about Conscious Leadership. I’ve given copies of the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership to managers who work for me and people I care about. I use its language in my daily living, and I measure myself against its standards.
The way it helped me in this specific instance was that it reminded me of how easily we can get pulled into the stories we create around things, and how we should always strive to take a story we’re telling ourselves and “explore the opposite.” Expressed as a commitment to sustainable behavior, the Conscious Leadership people put it like this:
I commit to seeing that the opposite of my story is as true as or truer than my original story. I recognize that I interpret the world around me and give my stories meaning.
I realized the ways in which my virtual instances were just stories I was telling myself. I’d made a certain peace with the worst aspects of them by taking care to remind myself of the times when I wasn’t well rested and was making the stories worse, but I was still just making up stories and arguing with them.
The thing is, as an introverted internal processor, it was pretty easy for me to slip into those conversations with virtual people in the process of just trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say when I felt a conversation was particularly important.
I had to pick up a new habit, which is really what this whole post is about.
A Walk on the Beach
So, I went camping. On the last morning we were at the park I woke up pretty early and took my camera and went for a beach walk. I set out thinking I’d go down to the jetty, a few miles down the beach.
I hadn’t meant to spend much time thinking about things and mainly hoped to just take pictures, but there wasn’t a ton to shoot and I knew I was going to have to talk about something difficult, so I lapsed into thinking about that conversation, and that meant I started arguing with a virtual person. Because I was thinking about a difficult conversation, it got increasingly negative and fraught.
I caught myself doing it and got really frustrated, because I know I’m not supposed to do that. So I’d stop for a few minutes and think about other things, but then I’d fall back into it.
Then I remembered how I coached myself about being under-rested, and took a page from that practice.
As I made my way down the beach, each time I’d get into an argument with that virtual person, rather than getting frustrated and beating myself up, I’d just stop and say out loud “this isn’t happening. That didn’t happen. You didn’t say those things.”
Conscious Leadership advocates moving your body when you’re feeling something strong and need to process it, or see it differently, so I’d shake myself a little, too.
Reader, it felt pretty good.
By the time I’d made it to the jetty, miles down the beach, I was smiling to myself because I knew what I needed to say. I knew it miles back down the beach. I’d just fallen into my old habit of wanting to think it all the way through, to know just what to say to each possible response or argument.
And of course the conversation went fine, anyhow. They usually do. I pay attention to people and how they’re feeling, and I’m careful in the initial framing and get things off on the right foot, so just taking the care at the onset is usually enough. When it’s not, well … I stay calm in the pocket, too.
Since then, though, I’ve been using that practice a lot, and it is incredibly helpful. I’m an introvert! I think about what I want to say to people before I say it! I’ve got a life-long habit of spinning up virtual people and arguing with them, which is to say a life-long habit of telling stories to myself that aren’t true. It’s tough to break, and I haven’t broken it. But I’ve added a little thing to the loop: When I catch myself doing it, I say to myself, “that didn’t happen” and it has made me feel lighter and happier each time. I think to myself “I don’t really know what they might say, but they didn’t say that, and they could say something completely different. You’ll just have to find out.”