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How To Deal With A Hard Situation

April 14th, 2013 by Alison · 9 Comments · global warming and climate change, relationships

All of us come up against hard, stressful situations we need to address — and avoid addressing because it’s uncomfortable and we’re not sure how.

I had a hard situation the past few weeks, and managed to use some good new skills in dealing with it. This is part of Diamond-Cut Life’s 2013 series on how to improve our relationships and communication with others.

I had felt upset, actually angry, three weeks ago after a dinner gathering at our friend Petra’s house. It took me awhile to realize why. I finally saw I had felt ignored by Petra, and had gotten little chance to talk. Petra had done most of the talking, had rarely made eye contact with me, and had mostly been addressing our third friend, Kelly (the friend through whom we’d originally met a decade ago). I felt excluded, and disrespected, and hurt. Looking back, I could see this had been a pattern at past dinners. It had just been more prounounced this time.

I felt so hurt and upset that at first I didn’t want to see Petra, a friend of ten years, ever again. But the idea fleeing and avoiding her didn’t make me feel better at all. In that scenario, I’d just feel bitter about the whole thing indefinitely, which would sap my energy for writing, and the people I love, and my work, etc.

Clearly, I needed to address the situation. But how?

I remembered a book I read earlier this year on something called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Three of my friends had been studying this way of interacting for years. It’s a set of skills created by a psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg’s skills for years. (One of my friends, Maren Sauders of Dream Into Change, has even gone into prisons to teach NVC to inmates. She says the prisoners are deeply appreciative.)

My first thought was to use NVC skills in a phone conversation with Petra (we live at a distance that makes getting together in person difficult). But she and I work opposite hours, and I also sensed she’d feel defensive if I put her on the spot with this topic on the phone.

So I drafted an email to Petra, and I asked two friends well-versed in nonviolent communication (NVC) to give me feedback on my draft. They gave me some suggestions on how to improve it. I rewrote the email, then sent it to Petra, stating at the end that I hoped to hear back from her. Here are the NVC principles I used in addressing the hard situation with Petra.

1.) Observe what’s actually happened, rather than evaluating or judging people. I did not say that I thought Petra was being self-centered at our dinner gatherings (that’s a judgment, and judgments hurt people, and shut communication down). Instead, I observed that at the recent dinner she rarely made eye contact with me, and had addressed most of her conversation directly to Kelly. I also observed that I had wanted to share about my first podcast, and felt frustrated by not getting a chance to do that.  

2.) Identify your needs, while also expressing concern for the other person’s needs.  In my first draft, I’d addressed my own need to be heard and acknowledged at group dinners - without looking at Petra’s needs at all. This is a common mistake in communication, as one of my feedback-friends pointed out to me. In the email I finally sent, I said I perceived Petra had a real need to talk with Kelly directly, as in one to one. I suggested that if that was the case, maybe she and Kelly could get together more on on one. I posed that as just an idea.

3.) Make requests aimed at getting your needs met. It’s crucial to ask for what we need, in specific ways. Otherwise we’re pretty much just complaining, and not creating a better situation than the hard one we’ve gotten stuck in. So, I asked Petra to make more eye contact with me at future dinners. I asked that when I bring up a topic, that she not necessarily change the subject quickly. And I asked for more chances to hear from others in the group about what’s going on in their lives, too.

So, what happened after I communicated with Petra using Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication skills that he’s honed for decades and been acclaimed for?

Unfortunately, nothing. It’s been almost three weeks and I haven’t gotten a response from Petra, or any acknowledgement that I reached out to her. (I do know via Kelly that she received my email.)

I didn’t get the result I’d hoped for. In fact, I felt more pain and anger than ever after it became clear Petra wasn’t going to respond to my efforts to improve the situation. Possibly the situation had been a hard one for me, but a happy one for her. Still, a friend would normally care if their friend feels troubled, right? Possibly, Petra had only accepted my friendship from the beginning because Kelly was central to both of our lives.

 At any rate, I felt betrayed. I felt so much pain and anger this past week over being ignored by Petra (again) that it was hard to concentrate on my work. (Fortunately, I still met a major deadline on Friday, and with a couple of hours to spare, which is an interesting lesson in the fact that we don’t have to be ruled by our emotions. But that’s a separate blog post.)

But today I don’t feel upset at all. I’m not carrying around any of the guilt or remorse that comes from having communicated in the heat of anger. Rather, I used the best NVC skills I could possibly have used, and I’ll use NVC more quickly and easily next time. I feel peace because I made observations rather than judgments, and asked for what I needed. Not getting the response I wanted is something that happens to all of us, given that other people have free will. That’s just something to accept.

All of will face hard, stressful situations in life. We can build our skills to deal with them well. As climate change progresses, it will create new, harsh stressors, such as drought and water shortages that are permanent rather than temporary, and outbreaks of diseases caused by warmth-loving insects. Some coastal and desert areas will become uninhabitable, which will in turn create large numbers of climate refugees that will stress the resources of the cooler inland areas that remain habitable. I’m making it a priority to develop my nonviolent communication skills now, in situations easier than those, so that I’ll have them when I need them the most.

Next Sunday I’m delivering an Earth Day oriented message to my church, Lincoln Street United Methodist (you might know by now that I’m a liberal Christian). Wish me luck!

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Jen Patterson

    I’d love to start a monthly study group! It’s really a powerful way of communicating. Sounds like you started by diving into the deep end of the pool. Bien hecho Alison! Well done Alison!

  • HKR

    Sorry, but if I were Petra I think I’d respond in the same way. If one of my friends sent me an e-mail with such ‘observations’ about my behavior, and then went on to tell me how I should act in the future, I’d feel attacked and go on the defensive too. In my experience, the best way to deal with such a situation is to talk to the person and say (in a non-agressive, mildly concerned tone): “I’m sorry, but have I done something to upset you? It’s just that I noticed you didn’t seem to want to talk to me the other night, and I don’t really know why…” Half the time, they didn’t even realize that they were doing it, and will apologize and correct the behavior themselves. The other half of the time, they really are upset about something you did or said (maybe something you didn’t even realize you did/said) and by getting it out in the open you’ll have the opportunity to correct this root problem.

    • Alison

      HKR, it’s good to get a different perspective on this. I definitely think there’s always more than one good way to address a situation.

  • Linda Berkemeier

    Sorry, Alison and Jen, but I have to agree with HKR.

  • Alison

    Something I didn’t state in the post is that Petra and Kelly are pseudonyms I used to protect people’s privacy. I mention this now because I received a lengthy email today from a reader who spent more than two hours writing me thoughtful questions and comments on this post. When I told him (he’s a friend) the real identities of Petra and Kelly, he told me that everything he’d written had been a waste of time. The relationship dynamics are altogether different, I can see now,given who Petra and Kelly actually are in my life.

    That said, I now think I should have talked with ‘Petra’ on the phone, despite the scheduling challenges. Email is the wrong medium for complex things (I’ve even stated that in other posts, duh, Alison). Just for one example, if she had shown no interest in the first request I’d have floated by her concerning our dinner gatherings, there’d be no need to bring up other requests. On the phone you get immediate feedback, which you don’t in email.

    I still intend to keep using nonviolent communication principles, but generally in person, or if that isn’t possible, on the phone. And I’m grateful for everyone’s comments. They help me learn and grow.

  • Jen Patterson

    Considering that your first impulse was to never see the friend again, I think writing a letter was still a good choice. Even if she did get defensive she could have written back saying as much or at least said something like “I don’t want to talk about this”.

  • Kathy

    Kudos to you, Alison, for addressing the situation rather than letting it fester. I especially like what you said about letting it fester - that to do so could easily have stolen your energy from writing, other important relationships in your life and things you love to do in your life. I agree with your ultimate conclusion that this matter though seemingly written from a genuinely open-hearted (is that a grammatically correct term?) position, was probably more effectively addressed in person or on the telephone where both parties are better able to “read” the situation and, as you say, receive immediate feedback.

    • Alison

      Thanks for the feedback and support, Kathy. I had another wave of pain and turmoil this past week around this — and I’m incorporating a lesson-learned from it all into my guest-sermon this morning on climate change. See you at Lincoln Street church in a few hours.

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