Whenever I begin a process of counseling with a person, couple, or family they almost always say something like this in the first meeting, “I/we should have started this conversation years ago. I/we have known ‘this” was a problem for a long time and guess I/we somehow believed that if ignored, it would simply go away or get better on it’s own.” The “this” they are referring to is whatever issue it is that has brought them to counseling. The “this” of course varies, but could include issues such as a growing tension or distance in a relationship, unhappiness at work, concern about a drinking problem, concern about issues related to sleep or eating, worry about a child, a health or financial concern that has been ignored, or sometimes a growing spiritual crisis.
I am reminded of the proverb that states, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is today.” It also seems to be true that the best time for any of us to have begun a difficult conversation is several months or several years ago, at the moment when we first became aware of a difficulty that needed to be talked about. The second best time to begin that difficult conversation is today.
An excuse I often hear for avoiding a difficult conversation, and one I have heard myself say many times, is some version of, “I just don’t want to rock the boat.” The interesting thing about this desire of not wanting to rock the boat, is the fact that it is almost always said at a time when, in fact, the boat is clearly already rocking. “I would prefer not to acknowledge how significantly the boat is rocking,” is probably a more accurate statement of what the person, couple or family is thinking and feeling, than simply “I don’t want to rock the boat.”
No matter what excuse we may find ourselves using to avoid difficult conversations, the results are usually the same. The original concern or problem grows and having the conversation we need to have becomes even more difficult. Quite often then, the original concern grows into a crisis in our lives, families, workplaces, congregations, or our communities, and it is that crisis that requires us to finally have the difficult conversation we have been avoiding. One only needs to think of what has been happening in Baltimore as a recent example.
Why do we avoid difficult conversations? There are no doubt many reasons, but I believe one primary reason is because there is great vulnerability in having these conversations. As long as I, or any of us, avoid a conversation we can be sure that we are right and can brew resentments, believing that the other person is clearly at fault and needs to change. Choosing to have a hard conversation means that we will most likely find out that the other person, of course, has a considerably different perspective on the issue and that they believe that we have some important changes that we need to make.
Significant growth and significant change requires significant risk and vulnerability from all parties involved. When we are willing to have difficult conversations though, real change, or conversion, can occur. The word “conversion” comes from the same root as the word “conversation,” a good reminder that authentic conversations have the capacity to change all parties involved.
Is there a conversation that you want to start right now, but perhaps are finding it difficult to do so? Maybe you wished you had started this conversation three months or three years ago. You can’t change the past, though, and so there is not much use in second guessing why you didn’t start the conversation sooner. Instead, remember that you can change the present and the future, by starting that conversation today.