“I don’t want to hurt him, but I will hurt him if I told him that I didn't feel the way he does.”
“I know it already, she will not like what I have to say.”
“The moment I said that I didn’t want to join for dinner, she started to scream at me like a wildfire.”
Every day we find ourselves in conversations with beloved ones, friends, colleagues and strangers. Equally as often we are sincerely occupied with how we – and what we have to say – comes across. It’s seriously important to us that the things we want to say come across in a particular way. To achieve a certain response from others, we might sugar coat, alter, shorten, mask, humourize or trivialize the content we share. We might even go as far as to hold off from saying anything at all to not upset, frustrate, sadden or irritate someone. That’s a shame really, because what you have to say is relevant and important. And it is not just important for you to say and own it but also for the other person to hear it.
Yet, why are we so scared to authentically and truthfully express ourselves? Why is it so hard to be honest and to say:
“I don’t want to go on a third date with you.”
“I will not come to your wedding on Bora Bora. It’s too far and too expensive for me.”
“I want to live a nomadic life. I will move out.”
“I want kids. I know you don’t but I really do.”
It’s good to be able to say what you have to say. If you don’t say what is important to you, nobody else will do it for you. Now, I can see that it is hard to speak our truth. Usually there are two reasons why we are scared to speak our truth.
Reason 1: I don’t want them to judge me or think less of me
Sometimes we can sense that what we have to say is opposing or contradictory to how the other person feels and thinks. We might know that they have a strong opinion about something that we don’t agree with. We predict that out internal truth will not be good news to them and we fear that they might judge us and our stance as ridiculous, boring, extreme or airy-fairy. We fear that they might think less of us. So, we often don’t say anything at all and keep our truth to ourselves.
The great thing about not saying anything is that we will not risk the possibility of them thinking less of us. The bad news however is that by not saying anything, the other will not think anything about us at all. We will remain a white sheet, unwritten, no edges no corners. They might walk away remembering our name. They might not. So, we have to make a decision. Do we want to take the risk and be remembered somehow? Or do we want to rather take the risk of being easily forgotten by simply nodding and agreeing to anything the other expresses? Speaking our truth also creates valuable opportunities to potentially and truly connect with someone else. It also creates opportunities for us to ‘test’ the level of empathy, acceptance and care we receive (or not) from the other.
Reason 2: I don’t want to hurt or upset them
Contributing to someone else’s experience of sadness, upset or even despair is a tough one, yet, it is completely inevitable. Let’s assume you are dating someone and you feel that it is not moving towards a meaningful relationship. However, you sense that the person you are dating is on a completely different page. They seem to have the best time and have secretly told their entire family and friendship circle about you and the future they envision with you. How to tell them that you are standing in the exit door without breaking their heart? Well, you can’t. Your truth is different from their truth. Consequently, there will be a conflict of interest, a loss and with that there will be some sadness.
Trying to prevent the experience of upset and sadness of the other is often tightly linked to our own relationship to feeling hurt, upset and sadness. The more you find it difficult to accept and welcome hurt, upset and sadness in your own life, the more you will try to prevent others from feeling it. Yet, what would you rather have, the truth – to know where you are at, grieve the loss and move on? Or keep living in your sweet fictitious bubble while the “love of your life” has already checked out of the relationship weeks ago? Give others the opportunity to be upset and grieve. They deserve to know and feel hurt in order to move on. And so do you.
The only person you will ever really know and have a deep knowing of their internal processes, thoughts and feelings is yourself. What is going on for the other will always be less clear. While deep empathy, curiosity and years of knowing someone can help to really understand somebody’s internal world and ways of thinking and feeling, we will never really be in their experiential world and therefore, never really fully and completely understand them. Thus, there will always be the risk of stepping onto their toes, be misunderstood, cause hurt or defensiveness. We might trigger the other, scratch their wounds or poke painful past memories in them. Even if it wasn’t our intention, we will – at some point – cause pain for them.
Now, knowing that, how can we still relax into conversations and meaningful encounters?
You have to learn and accept that you cannot control the response of others. You have to come to terms with the fact that all you ever have is fifty per cent within the shared space with the other person. Whenever you enter a conversation with someone else, you enter a shared space. Within that space fifty per cent of that space belongs to you and fifty per cent to the other person. Now, whenever we try to achieve a certain response in the other, we overstep our fifty per cent of the space. We then try to take eighty per cent or even a hundred per cent of that space. We are not comfortable enough by simply making most of our fifty per cent, we need to also control the outcome of the things we say or do – We need a particular response from the other. There are two main issues that occur when we intrude into the other person’s space. First, by not meeting the other person half way, we take away the opportunity for the other to make up their own mind and take responsibility over their own feelings and opinions. Second, by intruding into the other person’s space we sacrifice our own authenticity. Whenever we get concerned about the other’s response, we start to alter our truth and the content we share becomes less authentic.
In order to remain as authentic as we possibly can, we have to start focusing and maximizing the power of our fifty per cent of the shared space. Focus on what you have to say and how you want to say it. Can you trust yourself that what you have to say is true to yourself? Can you trust yourself that how you say it is empathic, genuine and caring? Can you trust that you don’t intentionally want to cause harm and hurt for the other?
Then you are ready to own your fifty per cent and relax back. Even if the other person still misunderstands you, feels upset or screams at you in response – you will be able to trust your own words and way of being. You then can feel more relaxed in the presence of their sadness, frustration or upset because you know for yourself that you tried to be as authentic and empathic as possible. Yet, even without intentionally causing difficult feeling for the other, you know that they can still be a consequence of what you had to say and that’s OK.
That’s as good as it gets. In case that does not sound good enough, then let me remind you that these fifty per cent are heaps of work already. To be truthful and authentic, to trust your own words and express them genuinely, to be empathic towards yourself and the other, to be self-responsible, to be vulnerable and open – and all of this at the same time is quite a task! Are you sure you want to take the responsibility for the other person’s experience on top of that? (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question).
...AND WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE?
When is the last time you were sitting on your mouth when you actually knew what had to be said? When is the last time you were scared to not fit in or upset the other by sharing yourself truthfully? What did you end up doing or not doing?