You know the “icky place”. It’s that pivotal spot in any interpersonal communication that reveals vitally important, and often uncomfortable, emotion or information. How the receiver responds to this revelation can make or break their mutual trust moving forward.
You’ve likely been on both sides of this one. You’ve led someone to move beyond the polite or approved explanations to spill their guts and reveal the core issue. You’ve probably also surprised yourself by feeling so secure that you disclosed more than you had expected. In both situations you could better deal with the heart of the matter – plus have a chance at a stronger bond with the other person.
In the Building Trust Workshop, we practice specific communication techniques that help us build working relationships where these conversations are commonplace. We share a set of highly accessible principles and guidelines that open people up in an authentic, constructive way. Then we work on keeping these one-to-one conversations impactful and constructive.
What if these kinds of interactions were a way of life? Would our time consist of non-stop intensity? By no means. When people get used to leveling with each other, stress commonly vaporizes. As individuals stop their posturing, we are much more likely to solve the real problems, face disagreements to find common ground, end unhealthy things before they become toxic, and in general reach their goals with more speed and solidarity.
But we don’t want to go to the icky place, no matter how helpful it may be. We pretend. We wear our best smile. We pray that God or erosion (time) will solve the problem. Issues fester; stresses accumulate; relationships plateau at best. The longer it goes on, the harder it becomes to get back to that relaxed, open, vulnerable condition that leads to breakthroughs and trust-building. We often settle for “getting along”, “working together”, or other versions of “good enough”.
And please, don’t let me kid you. I teach this stuff yet I am as likely as anyone to avoid unpleasantness. It’s just that over time I’ve learned to recognize my own patterns of avoidance; plus I’ve witnessed the priceless value of trust first-hand… so I (usually) summon the strength to approach the icky places.
I often ask workshop attendees to differentiate between open and honest communication. Each is important but eventually we come to understand that honest means telling the truth, whereas open suggests knowing what’s really going on. Spouses know what I mean, as do parents of teenagers, and anyone who’s sensed their managers cherry-picking through the facts. Honest communication is the absence of lies. Open is the whole truth. Only one of these builds trust.
Each person in the relationship must decide for themselves how open they can afford to be. We are, after all, humans. Among other things this means that we will, by our nature, let each other down. In other words, no one (on earth) is 100% trustworthy. This makes sense. As sound waves need a medium like air or water to exist, without risk, trust cannot happen. Only by revealing ourselves do we give another person the opportunity to demonstrate their trustworthiness (or otherwise).
Since it’s impossible to teach folks how to feel safe in a conversation, I merely encourage students to be mindful of the decisions they are making. No question that many of us have been burned or even seriously harmed by other humans in our past. Yet this need not lead to overly self-protective behaviors. We make choices. To build trust, open yourself up and take one step further out on the limb. If that’s too far, take a half-step. If you just can’t do it, honor yourself; find another person you’re more comfortable with, and then take that step.
Now let’s flip to the other side of the conversation for a moment. Many of us avoid going to the icky place in a conversation because we fear what we might uncover. We don’t ask the penetrating question. We steer the dialog toward polite and essentially risk-free topics. Obvious non-verbal signals slip by without pursuit. This always reminds me of A Few Good Men in that memorable scene where Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), shouts at Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise), “You can’t handle the truth!”
But he’s wrong. We can handle it, 95% of the time. In future posts I’ll tackle various aspects of this challenge, and even address the other 5%. These methods are learnable, practical, and can make a big difference in how those around you experience your trustworthiness!
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