The risk and reward of difficult conversations with friends

tl;dr at the end.

Sometimes, when I express a mindset that I’ve adopted, people are intrigued by it and find it a useful way of framing certain thoughts. When that happens enough times, I figure it’s time to document the mindset for wider dissemination; this is one of those.

A while ago, I was considering my relationship with a close friend. I realised I was interested in exploring a non-platonic (romantic, intimate, or sexual) relationship with them. I wasn’t hung up on this idea; I basically wanted to float it and see what they thought, and I was happy to leave things as they were if the other person wasn’t interested.

I hear stories sometimes of people who have tried to suggest changes (some may call them “escalations”, though I don’t like that mindset) like this to a relationship, and are concerned that just the mere suggestion of these changes could destroy the relationship. What if the friend doesn’t think of you the same after you suggest, say, that you’re interested in them romantically? What if this knowledge means they’re not comfortable continuing your existing platonic relationship, because they might think they’re teasing teasing you by staying around but denying you the relationship change you suggested, because your feelings are unrequited? What if they are offended or insulted by your suggestion, for some reason? Perhaps you suggest a sexual relationship and they think you’re just desperate for sex and trying to use them to get it?

Here’s the big question: do you really want to continue a relationship (be it friendship or otherwise) with somebody who would react like this to a calmly raised suggestion, when you have stated that it is a suggestion and nothing more, and that you’re happy with things as they are? If you can’t be completely honest with this person and have them be anything other than grateful for your honesty and vulnerability, what’s the point? Wouldn’t you rather know that’s the case than brush it under the carpet and never find out because you didn’t make the suggestion?

So here I am, a while ago, wrestling with these thoughts about a friend: I am interested in exploring romance, intimacy, or sex with them, but I don’t want this admission to be reacted to negatively and damage our existing friendship. I thought it through, and I came out with three distinct possible outcomes:

  1. My friend will be keen to explore these other things with me and we see where it goes.
  2. My friend will respectfully tell me that they’re happy with our relationship as it is, and be grateful for my vulnerability in making this suggestion.
  3. My friend will not be able to cope with this new information, no matter how calmly I try to discuss it with them and how hard I try to explain that it’s no big deal if they want to keep things as they are. As a result, they cut off contact. In this case, they are not the friend I thought they were, and this is a really unfortunate discovery, but it’s best discovered now than left hidden.

I realised that all three of these outcomes are acceptable to me. If (3) occurs, that’s a shame, but that’s life, and the fact is that I’ve known this person for years, so the likelihood of this outcome is very small. If we hadn’t been friends for long, and I made this suggestion, then (a) there’s less at stake; I have invested less in the relationship, and (b), I still would be grateful to learn that the friend would react this way sooner rather than later, and we can either work through that now, or go our separate ways.

I set out and wrote a big lengthy message, discussing my thought process and dancing around the message’s point. I wanted to do this in text because I can better and more articulately express my thoughts without feeling rushed, and once the message is sent, I can convince myself that there is nothing I can do until they respond, so there’s no point in dwelling on it or fretting. Hope for the best, express for the worst, but don’t waste your energy stressing about it. The message exceeded 400 words, but, halfway down, I asked, basically, if this person was interested in going on a date with me.

Then I waited patiently for a response. I’ll do you the courtesy that my friend did for me, which was to get unambiguously to the point early in the message so as not to keep me in suspense: they were happy with our relationship as it was, and weren’t interested in anything romantic. They also expressed that they appreciated my honesty.

And that was that. We’re still great friends; perhaps better, because I know I can feel safe having these hard conversations, and assume they’ll react empathetically and within my best interests.

So seriously, if you have you have high stakes conversation you want to have with a friend, just do it! The worst that can happen is they’ll show their true colours and not react well to the conversation, in which case that is valuable information that you have learned about each other; perhaps they could do with some research on communications, or, depending on the severity of their response, some therapy; there’s no shame in that.

Take the plunge!

tl;dr: If you’re worried about having a hard but respectful conversation with a friend because you’re concerned it’ll jeopardise/end the friendship, ask yourself if you really want to be friends with somebody who won’t give you the benefit of the doubt and respond compassionately and empathetically regardless of the outcome? What have you got to lose?

“You’re awesome!” and giving good compliments

Tl;dr at the bottom.

I live in a social echo chamber in which giving compliments is quite common. Often in society we don’t know how to give or accept compliments and without feeling silly or embarrassed.

I receive quite a few compliments, and still struggle to receive them (showing gratitude but not shrugging them off due to embarrassment), but I try to give them fairly liberally. Recently, I received an unprompted compliment from somebody, reminding me that I was awesome. I really appreciate people taking time out of their day to say these things, and I expressed gratitude for it at the time, but I found myself thinking about it later, and I realised that I’d wanted to ask “what made you say this?” but had refrained from doing so because I don’t want to sound ungrateful or expect people to take more time to explain themselves.

To be completely clear, telling people you appreciate them, or that they’re awesome, is a great start, especially in this society where recognising people’s flaws is common, but recognise their achievements is rare. The trouble with this, is that telling everybody that they’re “awesome” or similar has the potential to devalue the term through overuse. “Awesome” is an unqualified judgement that can be nice, but ultimately not very useful. I am consequently endeavouring to take things a step further when giving compliments.

Recently I read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B Rosenberg. In it, the author notes that gratitude is less useful than its justification:

The Three Components of Appreciation NVC clearly distinguishes three components in the expression of appreciation:

  1. the actions that have contributed to our well-being
  2. the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  3. the pleasureful [sic] feelings engendered by the fulfillment [sic] of those needs

(That whole chapter on “Receiving Appreciation,” and indeed the entire book, is a fascinating read.)

So rather than a judgement of “you’re awesome,” perhaps instead one could say “I really appreciate this particular perspective you have on that topic; it’s great to have somebody to bond with over this opinion; it makes me happy.”

This approach both gives the recipient of the complement a better understanding of what they’re doing well so they can do more of it, and as a result, in my case at least, helps me to receive and appreciate the compliment more easily, because I feel I deserve it more.

I am not saying I expect anybody giving me a compliment to go to this effort. In certain situations, I might ask for clarification, but I appreciate that people are busy, and despite them taking the time to compliment me out of the blue, they may not have time to elaborate. All I’m saying is that I will endeavour to be more specific with my own compliments in future, and occasionally might respectfully request the same of others, when I deem it appropriate.

A respectful request might be phrased like this: “I appreciate you saying that nice thing, but would you mind taking the time to elaborate on why you think that? It would be far more valuable to me if you could give examples as to what I said or did, why it was valuable to you, and how it made you feel, so that I can (a) appreciate you’re compliment more fully, and (b) use it as an opportunity for growth, to do more of the things that prompted the compliment.” I realise this is very verbose, and depending on your relationship with the individual, it could be abbreviated as time goes on, but I think the above is one of the clearest ways to make this request without sounding self-indulgent or unappreciative.

Tl;dr: give more compliments; we don’t do this enough! In doing so, try to be specific as to what you’re complimenting, and why it’s worthwhile to you. This helps avoid judgements (which when used regularly can have diminished value). This can help the recipient receive the compliment more authentically.

On being offended

“Offence is taken, not given.”

There’s a school of thought that says that you can’t control whether or not somebody will take offence to your words or actions. In this world of “political correctness,” or, as I often prefer to call it, “not being an arsehole,” there are those that think language policing is going too far: that people should be less sensitive, get a thicker skin, and just deal with it.

Examples such as “women should just accept that when I say ‘guys’ I intend it to be gender neutral.” “When I say something is ‘gay’ I don’t mean to imply that gay people are bad.”

The flipside of this argument is that “intent is not magic.” Regardless of what you intend, you may hurt somebody’s feelings.

My question is: where does one draw the line? I, personally, am of the opinion that if making a small change to my language will have a smaller chance of me hurting or alienating a person or community, then I’ll take it as an opportunity for self-improvement, and just make the change. I occasionally find myself in discussions, though with those who think that they should not be responsible for others’ feelings, or who will change some of their language, but reach a point where they deem they’ve done “enough” to be inclusive. I want to be receptive to these perspectives, but also have a reasonable counter-argument.

So I ask you, internet: what is your stance on being empathetic to those who don’t want to put in additional effort to make some people more comfortable or included (on the basis that “you can’t please everybody”), while trying to explain that in general, it’s really not that hard?

Edit (2017-10-23): I just came across this cartoon I’d shared on Facebook a year ago about offence.

Communicating and living authentically

NB: This post is dealing primarily with communicating feelings and emotions with partners/friends etc., rather than communicating/teaching  objective information.

I have difficulties with communication. It’s true of all of us, I think. We sometimes can’t adequately find the language to articulate our thoughts, or, worse, we’re afraid to do so, because we don’t want to admit how we feel (either to ourselves, because it’s too painful to think about, or to others, because we’re not sure how they’ll react or respond).

Communication tends to be most difficult precisely when it’s most important. […]
“If you’re afraid to say it, that means you need to say it.”

–Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, More Than Two, quoting Marcia Baczynksi

The above is a mantra that I attempt to adhere to, but it’s hard. I think it gets less hard, slowly, with practice, but I am not sure if it ever becomes easy. There is, however, often an amazing sense of relief, a weight lifted from your shoulders, after saying something you’ve been afraid to say, regardless of the outcome. Yet, despite knowing, objectively, that it’s better for somebody to accept or reject you for being authentic, than for them to accept an inauthentic representation of yourself, fear of rejection is still a hard hurdle to overcome.

mcfly-rejection.jpg
Pictured: George McFly (Back to the Future) looking horrified. Text: “I just can’t take that kind of rejection”

A big part of my struggle is communicating my wants and needs, and acknowledging that I am entitled to have wants and needs, and that I have a right to ask others for these, just as they have a right to set boundaries around what they are and aren’t prepared to offer. These wants and needs could be from anything as simple as “I need hugs”, to slightly more complicated requests like “I want to see you more often”, or “I would like you to occasionally be available to listen to me vent/rant/mope.”

These may seem straightforward, but I really hate the thought that I’m a burden on others, even though if I received such a request myself, I’d usually be happy to oblige, or respectfully say that I didn’t feel capable of meeting that need right now, and maybe negotiate something else, all despite the fact that I tend to keep pretty busy. I make time for those I care about, and it shouldn’t feel greedy or selfish to expect others to do the same for me, but it sometimes does.

This post, and indeed, this blog, is an attempt on my part to live more authentically, by sharing my thoughts, explaining who I am, and how I feel, without necessarily expecting anybody to read or do anything about it. So if you’re reading this, thanks for taking the time. I welcome constructive feedback, but reserve the right to ignore it.

Anyway, basically, brains are weird, and feels are hard.