I’m the kind of person who speaks her mind even when other people don’t like it. This can either be an endearing trait or a dangerous one. Don’t get me wrong, I know when I should hold my tongue, but sometimes I choose not to despite the consequences. In the past, I’ve justified this behavior by telling myself I valued the truth so much I had to speak it, but now I’m not so sure, because underneath the surface is something a little more self-serving–I think I’m right which means I think you’re wrong. But, the truth has nothing to with right or wrong, it lives beyond proof or justification, so what am I really doing?
When I was home visiting my family in July, I got into a disagreement with my mom about overcooked steel-cut oatmeal. Things got heated so quickly, before I had a chance to get out of it, I was in an argument and I was in over my head. Everything that came out of mouth felt like a knife was attached to it, I could actually feel how sharp my words were, so I shut down. I silently cried while eating the oatmeal, then I went to Starbucks and a movie to get some space. We didn’t talk about it until tonight and now the whole thing seems hilarious to both of us. What a preposterous choice to make! Force myself to eat burnt oatmeal or throw it away and risk her getting even more furious than she already was. In the moment, every bite of that oatmeal felt like I was swallowing my truth, but really, it was one bad breakfast. I lived, I moved on, it didn’t kill me. It didn’t even give me a stomach ache. While she was laughing over the phone about how ridiculous we both were, she said, “Sometimes you have to talk about it later because the present moment is not going to work.”
I realized I prefer to get every thought on the table as it’s happening in my head particularly when it comes to conflict because I want to work through it while feeling connected to the person. It makes me feel better to handle it this way, but does it make the other person feel better? I’m not so sure. When you have a sensitive subject to bring up and you know it’s going to cause tension, drama or a full-blown fight, do you directly take aim, close your eyes and tell it like it is or do you wait for a change of perspective before you reveal what had you all hot and bothered in the first place?
Consider your audience. If the person is a relatively easy-going friend who’s always direct and thick-skinned enough to hear whatever you need to say with a sense of understanding, then by all means, take the direct approach. Otherwise, it’ll start to get awkward because you’re holding back and the person is bound to notice. More than likely, they’ll hear you out and either agree with you or discuss their side of things and you’ll be closer for it.
If, on the other hand, you’re in the middle of heated conversation with your boyfriend and you know he’s prone to overreaction, or perhaps there’s a history of stuff you always argue about, be careful. He might take what you say a little too personally, so tact is essential to managing the situation. You don’t want to build a wall between you, if your intention is to connect. It’s much harder to climb over an emotional fortress built from misunderstanding and defensiveness than it is to gracefully walk through a minefield while mindful of the triggers buried in the ground.
What are you really arguing about anyway? If your mom starts yelling at you about oatmeal or potholes or the dog, she’s probably upset about something other than oatmeal, potholes or the dog. Steel-cut oats are supposed to reduce your risk of heart attack, not give you one. Get to the heart of what’s really going on for the other person by removing your personal attachment to the present moment. Does she want to show you she loves you? Does she want to know you love her? Is she disappointed for screwing it up and looking for reassurance that you won’t hold it against her? These feelings are probably a lot closer to the truth of what’s really going on. Assume she knows the oatmeal sucks. I was so busy casting my mom in the role of you’re wrong and I’m so right, I couldn’t see her side. I forgot to be empathetic. Otherwise, I could have acknowledged how nice it was for her to make me breakfast and come up with a joke about using it to fill in a couple of potholes, but not feed the dog–that’s just cruel!–and that would have been that.
You don’t have to solve every conflict exactly in the moment it happens. It’s perfectly okay to get some fresh air. Sometimes, you need to acknowledge that you are both too upset and before you say something you might really regret, you need to go for a walk, see a movie, dig in the garden, play a video game. This shouldn’t be used as further proof to make the person wrong or worse to make yourself wrong because you feel guilty. There’s a reason why people who think they’re always right are always alone. Let them know where you think things got out of control and what part of the derailment you were responsible for. You are no longer a child, so it’s time to take responsibility for your actions. Your relationship will become a lot closer by admitting where you were wrong then by proving where you were right. Sure, it doesn’t make for good reality television, but it will make for a happier life.