So yeah… Hard conversations.
It’s an easy day. Thursdays are rarely too intense. The twins and I are sitting down for dinner, as a family, enjoying some chicken, salad, and sweet potatoes. Joanie is seasoning the potatoes. Baby is taking a late nap on the account of a crazy growth spurt. AJ is upstairs in his dungeon being a moody teenager. We got some music on in the background and I’m enjoying a beer.
Bella and I are talking about a family member. She’s venting. It started with a simple question, “Why does it have to be this way?” and quickly turned into an interrogation. She’s frustrated that I don’t have the answers. I’m the dad, I’m supposed to know these things. To an outsider, it might actually look like she’s angry at me. Sadly, I don’t get to decide someone else’s choices. Which leaves me with a lot of empty answers. “I’m sorry it’s this way.” “I wish I could say more.” “You’re strong enough to make it through.” “We’re in this together.”
But nothing works. She’s upset with someone and needs me to help her understand why that person continues to be unreliable and selfish.
“I deserve better,” she says. Bitterness seeps in. I see where she’s going. She’s swearing off a person who has pitted themselves against her. A child growing a hardened heart.
This is an important moment. I have an 11-year-old daughter experiencing a range of emotions she shouldn’t have to feel. It’s not fair, but it doesn’t matter. If I validate her statement of what she deserves, then I’m giving her an out. If she deserves better, then she can always chalk it up to being someone else’s fault. Her anger is valid. There’s a villain in the situation. And it ain’t her.
She doesn’t need an out. She needs to be equipped. Prepared. Engaged.
We needed to have a hard conversation.
So, I look her in the eyes and shook my head. The shift in my mood made her know what was coming. I’m going to say something she doesn’t want to hear. It’s my Danny Tanner moment. My voice is low and sincere. I try my best to keep composure.
My response, “It doesn’t matter if you deserve it or not. It’s a part of your life. And you have to learn to deal with it. Gracefully.”
How about this…
I wanted to validate her. After all, she does deserve better. No one deserves to have an anvil attached to their leg only to be dropped on their hearts on a regularly consistent basis. I want to defend her.
But she doesn’t want to hear that right now. She might be asking for it, but what she really wants in this moment is for someone to tell her the truth. Not harsh, or mean. Just the reality. She needed to be brought out of herself. I’m not kicking her when she’s down. We’re having a real, hard conversation. The most important thing that can happen is for me to not make it about someone who isn’t in the room.
We needed to get present. Local. She’s here. The relative is not. She’s capable of seeing herself in the mirror. Even as a young kid, she’s the one who can bring clear eyes to an otherwise murky situation.
Hard conversations don’t always have to be about your enemy. Honestly, they should never be. If you have an enemy, then you’re either a superhero or at war with a rival tribe.
But like, she’s 11. She’s more mature than 47% of adults I know, but she’s a child. The depth of our conversation can only go so far before the gloss covers her eyes and she falls asleep at the dinner table. It’s a delicate balance.
Yet, again. She doesn’t like what I just said. I just told her, essentially, “tough break kid, that’s your life.” Any lesson I want to impart is going to be lost unless my next steps are graceful.
As for me…
My delivery is a major weakness. I’m blunt. It’s easy to come off coarse or even mean. To an 11-year-old tender heart, I can be hurtful. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew it struck a nerve. I knew it would cause some reverberations. My intentions were not to hurt her, but it hurt all the same.
I hurt her feelings. Shame on me.
With the wrong next steps, I could easily pit this as if I were siding with “the enemy.” She can easily feel like the conversation is about to turn into a lecture. Or even that she’s in trouble.
My voice and my face tell stories just as much as the words coming out of my mouth. I know, in this very moment, my followup has to be humble and honest… while still being real.
I know my audience. Not just Bella, but now Emma and Joanie are waiting to hear me continue. Joanie got that mama-bear ready. Emma has that Harley Quinn ready.
We’ve been here before. It ain’t our first rodeo.
And I’m ready.
As for us…
We live in a society starved for authenticity. Social media has made it readily acceptable to wear a filter on your face and lifestyle and feed into an illusion that can’t be perpetuated. Disagreements often turn into fights because stripped veneers often expose decay. It’s hard to go down a dark road with someone you love when you’re forced to stand on the opposite ends of the street. Even harder to feel like you’re two trains headed for a collision course. It’s uncomfortable, and it hurts.
Pride is a fickle beast. It doesn’t want to relinquish, yet it was complete submission for the opposition. Our pride makes us weak. We can’t fully listen when we’re preparing a response. Pride will numb us to other people.
Hard conversations are like fire. They can burn your house down.
But if you use it right, they can warm your home. They can be the kindling needed for refinement.
But most of us don’t want to be refined, we want to be validated.
I could have easily validated Bella’s feelings. Again, she deserves better. No arguments. But does that equip her? Could she handle a hard conversation in the moment?
I believed she could. If I was wrong, then I would apologize. I would walk it back and meet her where she was standing. Hard conversations don’t ALWAYS have a shelf life. Especially with your kids. Sometimes it’s better to let them soak in the moment and just grow. Others, like this instant, it was a springboard into a more direct conversation.
Then her sister cried.
Then I started crying.
Our sweet potatoes were seasoned with Joanie’s tears, too.
It was difficult terrain, but she trusted me to take it there. I was worried about hurting her feelings, which made me careful.
Sidebar: Listen, I’m trying really hard to dance around the particulars of the conversation. I don’t think they’re applicable to lesson at hand. That’s another blog.
Shoot, it’s probably another book.
We did the work over the last few years to have direct and honest conversations. I listen. She listens. I talk. She talks. And I cry just like her.
Hard conversations, with anyone, are difficult, but they’re necessary. Whether it’s your child, your spouse, or someone who is near and dear to your heart. You can’t grow if you don’t change. Relationships aren’t on trial after a disagreement. Or after a lesson. Or after expressing your feelings.
But there’s layers to it.
- Never start a hard conversations with the intention of winning.
- If your feelings are hurt, remember the person you’re talking to is likely to go on the defensive. Don’t be offended by this. Come in humble and intending only to express your pain.
- If you’re on the defense, stop reacting. Don’t respond. Listen. Listen and LISTEN! Validate the feelings. Mean it.
- The deeper the relationship, the safer the waters. Don’t jump into a ocean if you can’t see the bottom.
- Love first. Be slow to speak. Careful on your tone of voice and facial expression (hello, another Hooper weakness).
- Seek advice from people you trust to be honest and not take sides.
- Be prepared to be wrong. And accept it. There are always at least two sides to a story.
- Hug it out at the end.
Which brings us to Resiliency…
Hard conversations are meant to bring about mutual growth. If you’re not confident that the other person will hear you, say it. Admit your insecurity. If the person shames you for being insecure, jump ship. They’re probably not the kind of person who can handle a hard conversation. Frankly, they probably can’t handle a good relationship either.
We want to be stronger on the other end. Anti-fragile. Resilient. Better. Deeper.
And it starts with doing hard things.