On difficult conversations

Why do seemingly simple conversations sometimes escalate?

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I’ve been reading Difficult Conversations recently, and the authors point out something that stopped me in my tracks:

In fact, anytime a conversation feels difficult, it is in part precisely because it is about You, with a capital Y.  Something beyond the apparent substance of the conversation is at stake for you.

It may be something simple. What does it say about you when you talk to your neighbors about their dog [who barks loudly]? It may be that growing up in a small town gave you a strong self-image as a friendly person and a good neighbor, so you are uncomfortable with the possibility that your neighbors might see you as aggressive or a troublemaker.

Asking for a raise? What if you get turned down? In fact, what if your boss gives you good reasons for turning you down? What will that do to your self-image as a competent and respected employee? Ostensibly the subject is money, but what’s really making you sweat is that your self-image is on the line.

(page 16, emphasis mine)

They call these kinds of conversations “Identity Conversations,” and argue that nearly anytime a conversation feels more challenging than it “should” be, it’s because someone’s identity is at play.

Having a simple conversation with your partner about chores but suddenly things get more heated? One of you may feel like some essential quality about yourself — whether you’re a good person, a generous person, a smart person, a conscientious person — is being questioned.

Simply noticing that you’re in an Identity Conversation is a powerful first step.

That way you can discuss the real issue. Perhaps your partner will reassure you that she wasn’t at all trying to say you’re not a hard worker, and you can go back to talking about taxes. Or, if she actually was trying to imply that you don’t work hard enough, then at least you can talk about that directly.