How Do I Handle A Difficult or Stressful Conversation?
Warning: This is a long post.
Weddings are supposed to be all about you, until they are not.
Combine an emotional event with a lot of people, money and logistics and it’s easy to see how problems arise. It happens all the time.
To be honest or to keep the peace?
Here’s a typical wedding predicament: You want your stepmother to attend the wedding, but you don’t want your mom to make a scene or worse, not show up. And you know she would. On the other hand, you would be heartbroken if one or the other wasn’t there. Do you tell the truth and ruffle feathers or do you stay silent and sacrifice your own happiness. You feel like you lose either way.
Here’s another example: Your mom, who is paying for the wedding, keeps inserting herself into every single decision, big or small. She calls you a dozen times a day to the point where your stomach knots up when you see her number pop up on your screen. But you feel stuck because she is footing the bill. You ignore your mom’s calls because you can’t deal with your opinions getting tossed out the window. You know you need to sort this out, but don’t know how to, or are afraid that it will only make things worse.
Before I go any further, I am going to assume that you are dealing with, for the most part, a reasonable person, capable of a mature discussion, rational thought and a common, positive outcome. However, if this person is truly toxic, making his/her way through life by shaming, blaming, scheming, arguing and lying, then your efforts will more than likely prove futile. In which case you’ll just have to ask yourself – is this someone I want as part of my wedding? My life?
Every circumstance and situation is different – this I know. But more often than not, we fail to give ourselves more credit for our ability to guide a conversation. Our words can have a powerful effect and in order to choose the right words, you have to start with a little self reflection.
1.Decide what you want. What do you want for yourself, for the wedding, for everyone involved. You want your mom to back off and lighten up. You want her to be involved, but in a supportive way. You want her respect your decisions and you want everyone to feel included and have fun.
2.Acknowledge your emotions. Go ahead and give them a name. Frustration. Rage. Anger. Disappointment. You feel how you feel and you’re entitled to that. But also remember that we are the ones that give meaning to the things that happen to us, most of the time without our even realizing it. Then we justify those emotions and rationalize our behavior. Which is why the simple act of naming your emotion out loud is so effective because it forces you to get to the real issue.
3.Ask questions. Weddings intensify everything. People become more sensitive, uptight and emotional, so it’s good to take a few minutes to gain a little perspective – and maybe cut people some slack (yourself included). Am I making any assumptions or jumping to conclusions about anything? Am I being unreasonable? Am I justified? Am I too stubborn? What is really bothering me?
4.Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Broaden your frame of reference. Your mother is no Cruella DeVille (hopefully). She is most likely well intentioned, but just caught up in the wedding hype. This doesn’t mean she’s not in the wrong. What are her motives for acting the way she is acting? Your list might look something like this:
- Mom is a control freak
- She only cares about impressing her friends
- I’m her only daughter and this is her way of showing her excitement and enthusiasm for the wedding – she wants it to be perfect.
- Mom and dad eloped right out of college. They never had a wedding, so it makes sense that Mom is getting a little too emotionally involved. (see? Now we’re getting somewhere)
5.Brainstorm solutions. Ideally, you will have a mature conversation where you can both brainstorm mutually beneficial solutions. But it’s best to have some in your back pocket in advance.
Here’s another example. You ignored your gut and invited your best friend from 7th grade to be in your wedding, even though you’re not close anymore. Over the past several months, she has been nothing but demanding, unhelpful and an energy suck. You are kicking yourself for asking her to be a bridesmaid and now and want to fire her from your bridal party.
- What do I really want? To be surrounded by positive people who are supportive and happy to be part of our celebration.
- What am I feeling? Upset for being forced into accommodating her in the first place. Stressed out because I can’t please everyone. Torn because I feel like I can’t win. Disappointed that she has been nothing but a downer from day one.
- Ask questions: Am I reacting this way because I felt forced into asking her to be a bridesmaid or is she really out of control? Have I been there for her as a friend? Am I exaggerating anything or blowing things out of proportion? Have any of my requests been unreasonable?
- Put yourself in her shoes – what does she want? She has always been a drama queen, even when we were kids. She thrives on it. We drifted apart over the years and she has grown apart from most of our old friends, who I continue to remain close with. She just went through a tough breakup and I wasn’t there for her because I was busy talking about my wedding. Maybe it’s her way of acting out on her anger or self esteem issues.
- Brainstorm solutions. If she’s willing to talk, go to dinner just the two of you and promise not to talk about the wedding. Ask her politely if she still is willing and or able to (financially) participate in the wedding.
Decide on the right medium
This is simple. Face to face is best (and the hardest if you are non confrontational). Then phone, then email. But please, don’t text. Ever.
Choose Your Words
Yes, it takes practice to become skilled at getting through to people, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. What it comes down to is your ability to make the other person feel felt. That’s really all people want – to feel listened to and validated, like their feelings are acknowledged.
- Make it a “safe” conversation. When people feel at ease, they can say anything. The minute they feel threatened, they become defensive, hostile or turn silent. “The last thing I want is to create an awkward environment for everyone or to hurt anyone’s feelings. All I want is for the people that I love to be present during this special celebration.”
- Don’t set out to “win” the discussion. This is about being honest without being aggressive or accusatory.
- Listen. Ask questions. Listen. I mean really listen – not just to the words but to the meaning behind them. And when it’s your turn to talk, don’t attack, insult or accuse. That won’t get you anywhere. Acknowledge what is being said. Validate it. “I get the sense that you’re frustrated that I’ve been overly consumed with wedding stuff – how frustrated are you? What can I do to help ease that frustration? I would love for this process to be fun for both of us.”
- If you are in the wrong in any way, apologize. You probably haven’t been perfect, so if (and only if) there is something you messed up on, acknowledge it. Show your vulnerability. “Your breakup with John must have been really hard for you and I wasn’t there for you because I got too caught up in the wedding. I’m feel awful about it and I’m really sorry.”
Maybe you’ll be attacked. Maybe this other person will lay it on you and you feel like you are getting nowhere. That makes it all the more difficult to be calm, but if anything good is to come out of this situation, you’re just going to have to learn how to control your emotions. And you’re going to have to talk it out.
It’s probably annoying to listen to me talk about how “you” have to be the one to change and take the high road when you’re most likely the one surrounded by a bunch of irrational, selfish or controlling people.
I guess all I can say to that is – what other choice do you have? It’s your wedding remember?