I recently gave a Lightning Talk to the Women Catalyst community that I'd like to dive deeper on with my broader audience.

I love to ask clients, “If there were no consequences, what would you do?

This question is less about believing there are no consequences and more about ideation that is bigger than fear and anxiety. A recurring theme that comes out of this prompt is the desire to have a conversation with someone that is often overdue. We want the space to say what is festering in our minds, to share an idea that is really important, or to make a request of someone who plays a role in our lives.

With these conversations, and anything that involves more than one person, we are unable to guarantee a specific outcome. We worry we may offend the other person or fear they won’t understand what we are trying to communicate. We know that once we initiate the dialog, there is no rewinding to a time are and later wish we could rewind to before the conversation took place. We may cause conflict we hadn't intended that could alter the course of the relationship in the future.

The need to properly articulate our thinking and feeling creates high stakes. Like anything important, we shy away because we have evolved to seek safety and shy away from danger.

The truth that is often harder to see is that suppressing our desire for communication also has negative consequences.  It leads to anger and resentment because not saying something does not magically erase our need or desire. It still exists.

Rather than initiating a conversation, we alter our behavior hoping that the other party will notice and either adjust their behavior or prompt the discussion. If all goes according to our passive plan, we may not notice the shift in behavior because we are already set in a perspective of looking for evidence that the person is not fit to engage in our discussion. Any hint of what is uncovered on our hunt is easy to globalize.

Even if they do initiate, we may find ourselves caught off guard because our obsessive thinking of how the conversation might look has blinded our knowledge of what was really important in the first place.

What do we do? And what makes certain conversations difficult? 

We operate in a world of 3 realities. There is my reality, your reality and a 3rd reality somewhere in the middle that includes only what is observable to both of us – the words, body language, tone of voice, and actions we bring to our dynamic with one another. Behind each of our individual realities is a set of cognitive thoughts and feelings that consciously and unconsciously influence what we contribute to the 3rd, shared reality. Each of us has our own experiences, views, opinions, beliefs, stories, assumptions, and more than influence our contribution and interpretation of our shared 3rd reality.

The most immediate shift you can apply is remembering there are 3 realities. Not 1, but 3. When we understand this, we can commit to viewing conversations as a way to explore these 3 realities. Make conversations about what you can learn.

So, how do we know when to approach a conversation from a learning mindset?

There are 3 easy to remember opportunities:

When you…

  1. Are you trying to determine who is right and wrong
  2. Are you assuming poor intentions
  3. Are you assigning blame to someone

Right and Wrong

When we assign right and wrong, we assume there is one universal truth set. Differences are less often about the truth and more frequently about our set of differing realities. Each of us perceives, interprets, and assigns different meaning to information based on our individual realities. Further, our interpretation most often to reflects our own self-interest. When we create this separation from right and wrong, we can explore what is important to the other person – their truth built from the lens of their experience. To understand why their reality is their reality. We walk away with more information to work with, not less.

Impact and Intent

We are quick to assume the impact someone had on us is the impact they intended to have. If I am angry, you intended to make me angry. We have to separate intent and impact. We think we know what other people intend with their words and actions, but we rarely do. We have to ask. Our physiology is conditioned to look for danger. Our operating systems are flawed. We must question this assumption productively. Simply asking someone what they intended is a window into exploring gaps between impact and intent.

Blaming

Blaming assigns judgement of who is at fault. When we commit to learning, we move beyond fault to understand how each party contributed to the dynamic.

There is a saying I use with clients – everywhere I go, there I am. Boldness is the ability to identify your own contribution. The part that goes wherever you go. This is the part we can change. Start a conversation by own this contribution publicly. In doing so, it becomes an invitation for the other party to do the same. When you both see all contributions, you have a partner to create something different. You are sitting on the same side of the problem and can work together to find resolution.

Be bold. Get uncomfortable. Grow. Initiate a long overdue difficult conversation.