For much of my life, I found unresolved emotional tension nearly unbearable. Perhaps surprisingly, especially in my professional work, this meant that often I was the one willing to have uncomfortable conversations. My discomfort around the lack of resolution fairly quickly outweighed my resistance to initiating a potentially awkward conversation.
Less surprisingly, I’ve discovered that uncomfortable conversations are a skill that can be learned. Part of that skill has been developing a deep belief that clarity and directness can be a form of kindness.
When Amy and I teach Managers Anonymous workshops a recurrent theme is that for managers it’s almost always more important to be clear (and kind) than to be nice. Too often “nice” fails to say what is important or useful. Particularly in relationships with an inherent power imbalance (like a manager and employee), focusing on nice creates confusion. Being confused about what somebody more powerful than you wants, is a recipe for frustration and anxiety.
I’ve digressed, what I wanted to talk about is silence. Especially the silence where something important isn’t being said. Tink grew up in a family where very little was said directly and almost everything had a hidden meaning. She learned that to feel safe she had to ignore what was being said directly, and instead try and understand what was being said indirectly. To make it even more confusing, what was said implicitly was often more important than what was said explicitly.
I grew up in a family where the explicit rule was “use your words”. Implied was that expecting someone to intuit my unspoken needs was ridiculous. If I wanted something, I had to ask for it. Negotiating these differences has been one of the most fun parts of our relationship.😳
As we continue to navigate our way through this, I keep thinking about silence. In Tink’s childhood, silence was something that couldn’t be trusted, it was almost always pregnant with unspoken meaning. In my childhood silence was just … silence. I could trust that if something needed to be said, it would be said. Over the years I increasingly recognise what a huge gift this was, being able to trust silence.
As I spend more time working with people in leadership roles, I’m noticing how often they shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Leaders who do this teach their staff that they can’t trust their silence. I believe that one of the responsibilities placed upon anyone in a leadership role is to face those uncomfortable conversations as bravely and skilfully as possible.
We are all capable of giving the people in our lives the gift of being able to trust our silence. To trust that if we have something important to say, that we will say it. Even when it’s uncomfortable. I’d love to see more trustworthy silence in the world.
PS. Hopefully I’m being clear, but just in case. This isn’t a justification for being a jerk or a micromanager. This isn’t permission to nag about every little thing or use others to do your emotional labour.