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How Not to Have an All-or-Nothing Conversation

talkingFollowing on the theme of approaching conversations with people, this week I want to invite you to consider a new way of thinking about issues that are sensitive or have the potential to impact your relationship with someone.

In my 17 years of freedom from emotional eating I have come from being a very scared, extremely doubtful, negative, all-or-nothing, insecure little person (who thought she was absolutely the fattest, ugliest person on the planet and that everyone else thought so too) to become the person I am today. I’m certainly not issue-free or any where near perfect as my friends and family will happily attest, but open, loving, happy, optimistic, confident and secure, able to know that, while I may screw up, drop the ball, or hurt someone’s feelings, I am not bad or unworthy of love, rather I am always deserving of dignity and respect from myself and from others.

I trust myself to openly take responsibility when I make a mistake (not that it’s always easy for certain) and to trust myself to communicate respectfully and clearly about what I need.

A big part of that healing transformation was my learning to approach conversations and relationships from an open place rather than an all-or-nothing place and in so doing, to really see that I am not at all dependent on anyone for anyone thing. My life is always within my control and there is always more than one way to meet any need that I have – and most of the time, through simply communicating openly and clearly and through taking the time to seek to understand what others need or why they may not feel comfortable agreeing to my request, I realize that either:

  • they’ve misunderstood me,
  • they’re making a great point and I really need to rethink what I’m asking of them, or
  • they’re making a great point about what they need and why my request won’t work for them.

Then I can move on and find other ways to meet that need without at all taking it personally or feeling at all rejected, unloved, disrespected or judged.

The last two weeks of articles are important pieces of this puzzle, and this week’s article is as well. I encourage you to read it through and think about how you have historically approached getting your needs met in the past and consider how things might have gone if you had had the opportunity to have these thoughts and tools at your disposal rather than the often ineffective ones you may have been taught by key people in your life.

You see, most people approach conversations from an extremely all-or-nothing direction. Meaning most conversations look like this:

  1. Person A thinks about what they want/need.
  2. Person A approaches person B and tells them what they want/need.
  3. Person B has a reaction to that that is either positive, negative, or neutral.
  4. Person A interprets Person B’s reaction and either persists with what they want/need with or without Person B’s support or does not pursue their wants/needs because of Person B’s reaction.

Many of you are probably reading this saying, “Uh, Yeah Michelle, so what? That’s how conversations happen. Thanks for the reminder…”

Well, actually, that’s how conversations that lead to stress in relationships happen. That’s not how conversations in healthy interdependent relationships happen when there is anything of any significance to discuss.

Imagine you’re Person B. Imagine you’re just the slightest bit co-dependent (meaning you’ve been taught that your needs aren’t as important as others and that your job in life is to meet other people’s needs.) Imagine that Person A is approaching you with great exuberance and excitement as they ask you for what they want/need. In other words, they are already past this conversation and into the future where you’ve said yes, they have what they want/need and they are happy campers. How easy would it be for you to say no if you wanted to? Or even to modify the request a bit so it suited you better?

Or imagine that Person A is approaching you with some anger or frustration, either through their body language, their tone, or their words. Would you trust yourself to decline their request or to take some time in that moment to reflect on what would work for you and then offer an alternative?

Most folks who use food to cope do so, in part, because they feel anxious much of the time about just such interactions. They worry about people asking them for things and themselves not being able to say no, even though they want to. They worry about feeling guilty and bad for not meeting other people’s needs should they say no, or even just offering an alternative plan that works a little better for them. Thus, they try to avoid certain people or places where requests may take place, they isolate themselves; they may even lie just to not hurt, upset or let someone down. Any of these patterns of behaviour greatly compromises your self-esteem and your sense of your ability to keep yourself safe emotionally in relationships.

Ultimately that worry, building over the day, typically comes out through the use of food at night. Now imagine yourself, as you are now, being Person A. Your approach now might be to worry or feel anxious asking Person B for something because you have an all-or-nothing story in your head and you believe that if they say no, or if they are upset at all by your request, it means you can’t have what you want and that you’ve done something wrong.

From this headspace, many people (Person A’s) will simply not ask and just go behind the scenes and sneak what they want or angrily (because they feel stifled and controlled by even having to consult Person B who they think may not agree) go forth with what they want prepared to snap should Person B even acknowledge what they are doing, let alone express any hurt, anger or fear themselves for the way you went about things.

And should you choose to approach Person B, your whole demeanor as you approach them will be nervous, fidgety and awkward, not confident and balanced and as though you know you are an equal to the person you are approaching. Whether they know it or not, all people have a great capacity to read our meta-messages (our body language, tone, eye contact, etc.) and will know from our meta-messages that we’re feeling a little ungrounded or downright angry or anxious (as the case may be). Thus Person B, unless they are not steeped in their own co-dependent training, will start to close off a little and prepare themselves for whatever it is that you’re bringing that’s making you so awkward.

Not a great place for you as Person A or as Person B to be starting a conversation from.

Now, try this instead.

Assuming:

  1. You’re Person A, and
  1. You’ve taken the few minutes I suggested to write down your answers to the questions in last week’s article Before You Have “THE” Conversation, Try This and thus you are clear that the issue/need/want is between you and this person and not just your own “stuff”; and
  1. This is not a true emergency (keep in mind the old adage – “A lack of planning on your part does not create an emergency on my part.” If it is your lack of planning or follow through that has created an urgent need for Person B’s support or approval or attention at that moment, stop, breathe, and remind yourself that it is not Person B’s fault you’re in the pickle you’re in and thus they have the right to agree to chat now, or to help or not. They are not being mean or bad or selfish or inconsiderate or a bad friend if they say no to a last minute request from you.)
  1. You’ve asked Person B if they have a few minutes to chat with you about something or if there would be a better time. Here you want to keep in mind 2 things:
    1. If you are unwilling/unable to let this person finish what they are doing so they can be truly present with you, you are not coming from your rational, balanced, adult self and you need to take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that this is not a life or death situation. It may be very important to you but ask yourself if a few minutes, or an hour or a day will really make that big a difference to the outcome of the issue (and also ask yourself if perhaps the urgency is a result of your procrastination and thus, again, not about Person B)
    2. The more you push someone to be present with you when they are distracted or rushed or genuinely not ready/interested to speak with you at that time, the less likely it is that you will have a positive outcome to the conversation because you are beginning the talk from a place of disrespect for Person B’s needs.

Throughout this whole process of approaching a conversation with Person B, I strongly suggest that you keep one thought firmly planted in your brain:

When I get my needs met at cost to someone else, my self-respect suffers as does the trust and respect in the relationship.

When I approach a conversation with someone from the perspective that I value this relationship and want it to have the potential to be the very best that it can be, I naturally want to ensure that my needs do not get met at cost to this person and this relationship.

Now, if you’re an all-or-nothing thinker, you may believe that Person B is the only person who could possibly meet that need for you and that if they say no to your request it means you’re never going to get those needs met. Thus you’ll feel a sense of urgency to hear “Yes” coming out of their mouth and may pressure them, manipulate them, or if you’re pretty sure they’ll say no, not approach them at all and just feel annoyed and resentful that you’re not getting what you want.

But, in reality, it is exceptionally rare that you are ever truly dependent on just one person for any of your needs and it is also exceptionally rare that Person B wouldn’t be willing to chat with you about ways that would work for them and for you, to get your needs met.  You just have to approach the conversation from a place of openness, from a place of trust in your right to have what you need, from a place of knowing that you’re not dependent on Person B for your needs, and from a place of being willing to let the resolution of the issue and the ultimate meeting of your needs take a little time as long as it enhances the sense of safety and trust in the relationship in the end.

That’s the key. Approaching the conversation from a mindset that says:

“This relationship is important to me and if it takes a little while for us to find a way for us both to feel content with the plan or decision we make, it’s worth it to let it take a little while. I am willing to let this be the first of a number of conversations about this issue and am not going to force an answer or agreement in this conversation.”

In fact, it’s wonderful to start out the conversation sharing that thought with the other person so they know that you’re not going to try to force them to make a decision in that moment and that the relationship is what’s key, not the issue.

It also implies, to you and to Person B that:

  • You know that you are deserving of having your need met;
  • That you are ultimately not dependent on this person for this need; and
  • That you are confident that you will find a way to get your need met (in other words, they are not ruining your life or being evil, thwarting you if it turns out that meeting your need compromises them too greatly or if you’re not able to come to some consensus in the first conversation).

So, the theme of the last 3 weeks really is:

  1. Trust that you have a right to be treated with dignity and respect.
  2. Trust that your needs are just as important as everyone else’s.
  3. Know that the same is true in reverse.
  4. Approach people from a place of trusting yourself to meet your needs and therefore from a place of asking for their support rather than demanding it or feeling dependent on it.
  5. Let your initial conversation with someone be just that, the beginning, rather than the only conversation you’ll have with them about it. Let it be an opening to a dialogue rather than, “We have to make a decision about this right here and now whether you’re ready to or I’m ready to or not!”
  6. Before you approach someone to discuss any issues of sensitivity, take time to stop and get clear about what your intention is, what you want to convey to them and how you want to feel at the end of the conversation. If your intention is to walk away feeling open and loving and adult, you will find it much easier to stay grounded during the conversation and to see this as one of a number of discussions rather than the old all-or-nothing approach.

So think about these things as you start to approach others in your conversations.  Test things out by taking little baby steps – gently try one of these suggestions with someone you feel most comfortable approaching, and build from there. Believe me, once you start trusting your ability to speak up for yourself in healthy, non-co-dependent ways, you’ll definitely want to keep moving forward to a place where you’ll feel much more freedom with yourself and your relationships.  Yay!  Let me know how it goes!

Love

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