Whether it’s with strangers, co-workers or in our intimate relationships, many of us dodge awkward and difficult conversations.

Sometimes it’s because of our relationship with conflict and criticism. We might associate self-expression with alienation or abandonment. If we tend to tell people what we think they want to hear and suppress and repress our needs, expectations, desires, feelings and opinions, the sky’s the limit with awkwardness. Admitting that we differ in opinion or taste might be as difficult as expressing our anger and disappointment about something.

It could be that our default prediction for the outcome of broaching awkward and difficult conversations is the sky falling. We’re so traumatised in advance of speaking up by our ‘risk assessment’, our reaction convinces us that silence (or hinting) is better.

We’re likely to diverge from our boundaries, values and intentions when we speak up based on our predictions of how upset or defensive others might get.

This is how we talk ourselves out of being honest, intimate and vulnerable when it comes to our close relationships. It might be what stops us from doing the right thing in other areas of our life.

We decide the person’s reaction and don’t realise how many decisions, judgements and assumptions we’re making without involving them. In deciding what we think they can handle or how they’ll react, we imagine we’re protecting their feelings (or ourselves). We’re inadvertently damaging the integrity of the relationship, though. We’re also not being honest about where we’re projecting our stuff onto them and calling it theirs. In some situations, fear of rocking the boat dictates, even when it means, for example, not doing our job properly.

When we talk ourselves out of being honest, we create bigger problems than if we’d spoken up in the first place.

The potential for a conversation to be awkward or difficult isn’t a reason to avoid it. We’re also missing the wood for the trees by focusing on the wrong aspect of the conversation.

Undoubtedly, as humans, we feel funny about broaching certain subjects. We feel vulnerable and nervous, especially when expressing our innermost feelings and thoughts or expressing discontent or disagreement. We might feel bad about communicating that something someone else is doing is bad. But our feelings about the subject or the act of speaking up are ‘awkward’, not the actual conversation itself.

If we are in agreement with ourselves about who we are and what we stand for, conversations aren’t that awkward. We (and our life) will feel more awkward by us not speaking up. If, on the other hand, we don’t have our back, then, yes, the conversation is going to be difficult or awkward, no matter what. We’re not treating and regarding us with love, care, trust and respect.

If there’s mutual agreement about the nature of our relationship with someone, given that context, a so-called awkward conversation really isn’t (or certainly doesn’t have to) be that awkward. It’s understood that for the relationship to grow and prosper, it has to be based on honesty and intimacy. And that means being vulnerable enough to be open to the potential for conflict and criticism.

When unspoken issues sit between two people, broaching issues is awkward. There are already signs that they’re not on the same page. If we’ve already pussyfooted around or silenced ourselves because we thought it was our ticket to commitment, of course, speaking up will be awkward!

The possibility of someone being defensive or upset isn’t a reason not to bring something up.

Humans can and do get upset and defensive about a host of things. We can’t predict it, and we shouldn’t. Trying to influence and control other people’s feelings and behaviour by trying to anticipate and feel their feelings is bad boundaries. We are too quick to assume that someone’s emotional response is purely about us.

If all of us decided only to raise the pretty stuff, no one would know themselves or their relationships. Someone can’t know what an issue is, how we feel, or what we need or want if we don’t communicate. Isn’t part of the journey to their understanding something or someone feeling something? Don’t we also need our feelings to give us clues and cues about what we need to be and do?

There are undoubtedly times when conversations can and will feel awkward and difficult, but we don’t build up our conflict, criticism and, yes, intimacy muscles by avoiding honest communication.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites