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Heavy Meddle: When Things Get Touchy, I Clam Up

A woman wonders whether she can learn to be more direct with people. (Kukuh Himawan Samudro/Unsplash)
A woman wonders whether she can learn to be more direct with people. (Kukuh Himawan Samudro/Unsplash)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Hi Steve,

How can someone who is not comfortable being direct with people develop that skill? I always sandwich the negative in between some thick positives, which just makes for mixed messages.

What would you suggest? Practicing on paper? Role playing? Improv??

Although I'm very clear when writing, leaving a note seems really passive-aggressive. But I get tongue-tied when I have to have a conversation about touchy subjects (with anyone — strangers, my husband, my kids, the neighbor with the poopy dog, my team at work).

Thoughts?

Thanks so much,
Ms. Indirection

...

Dear Ms. I,

You are not alone! In fact, the vast majority of people on earth spend a majority of their lives silencing their true feelings. Why? Mostly because, like you, they are conflict avoidant. That’s what this boils down to: conflict avoidance.

Appropriately, you actually avoid using this language in your letter. Instead, you use code words. You talk about a reluctance to bring up “touchy” subjects, and a need to temper “negative” feedback with positivity. But what that really means is, I don’t like saying things that might upset people (i.e. cause conflict).

Now look: I’m all for role playing and improv classes. But my hunch is that you’d do better to think about why the prospect of conflict spooks you so much.

To be clear, there are plenty of scenarios — both in our family lives and in our work lives, where it makes perfect sense to avoid conflict, especially when we can sense that someone is spoiling for a fight. But the main reason we avoid conflict has to do with our doubts and inhibitions. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid that we’ll hurt other people’s feelings. Or that we’ll be rejected or humiliated. That we’ll be tagged ignorant, overly sensitive, irrational. We lack confidence in our own views, and our right to feel what we feel. We worry about things escalating, which might lead to us expressing our aggressive feelings and impulses.

Can we agree that this is all pretty scary stuff?

If you can resolve the conflict within yourself about being direct, you’ll also start to more effectively resolve the conflicts between yourself and other people.

So rather than face these risks, more often we either suppress our true feelings, or soft-peddle them.

Here’s the problem with that approach — avoiding conflict is not the same thing as resolving conflict. It’s basically the opposite of resolving conflict. When you suppress your true feelings, particularly ones involving disappointment and frustration, you either wind up with an ulcer or you wind up eventually exploding into rage. Both of those are lousy options.

I do understand that simply recognizing the source of your inhibitions doesn’t make them go away. But it will help you begin to accept your feelings, and to feel less conflicted about expressing them.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by observing that women struggle more with this kind of self-expression than men. Why? Because our culture tends to allow (and even encourage) men to vent their spleens. There’s a whole vocabulary associated with men who do so. They are candid. They are forthright. They “tell it like it is.”

Think about the words we have for women who are too honest about their perceptions or demands and disappointments. Shrill. Whiny. Domineering. And so on. So you’re not just dealing with your own inhibitions, but the way you’ve been inhibited by patriarchal patterns of thought.

But everyone experiences disappointment and frustration. It’s a part of the human arrangement. You have a right to express your concerns to family members, friends, and co-workers, even if you have remind yourself that you have that right.

What you’ll find is that being more forthright, even and especially when it’s challenging, will lead to a greater sense of resolution. If you can resolve the conflict within yourself about being direct, you’ll also start to more effectively resolve the conflicts between yourself and other people.

I do think you’re wise to find ways to be honest that are also compassionate. But in the end, what’s most important is that you say what you need to say — simply, directly, without rancor, but also without remorse.

I wish you all kinds of luck.

Steve

Author's note: The one thing I always appreciate about the comment section at the end of this column is that I can count on it as a place where people aren’t inhibited about initiating conflict. In fact, they often seem to be spoiling for a fight. So be it. What’s your take on all this? Fire away in the comment section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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