A few months ago, during the tense nationally televised Senate confirmation hearings for our newest supreme court justice, I dared to post on Facebook a sincere but potentially controversial comment about my feelings about the proceedings.
Rather quickly, in response to my post, I noticed a vitriolic response on my feed from one long-time acquaintance. Soon thereafter, I received a somewhat provocative individualized response on Messenger from a different friend. Given the varied tones of the messages, I disregarded the post on my feed but stewed over how to respond to the one on Messenger because I perceived that it came from a place of caring. Despite this perception about caring, I still believed that this type of “difficult conversation” was not compatible with the text-like medium of social media.
In response to the second message, I ended up writing to my friend on Messenger that the topic was a very tough and emotional one for me. I requested that if we speak about it, that we should do so in person so there would be fewer misunderstandings.
That may have seemed like a cop-out to my friend, but it felt right to me because I knew I needed appropriate frameworks for success in that seemingly difficult conversation. In addition, I noticed that I may not be willing to put the effort into difficult conversations that lie outside my key personal relationships where I want to put my best efforts.
In today’s post, we continue the discussion about signaling in conflict by exploring the importance of communicating that you’re not ready, not willing, or unable to work through a particular conflict at the time requested or when things explode unexpectedly.
Why wouldn’t you be ready, willing, or able to communicate with someone about a conflict? There are thousands of potential reasons why we might choose not to communicate or engage in a conflict, but here are just a few general considerations:
- Your emotions are too high (anger, fear, confusion, and etc.)
- You are stressed
- You are too tired
- You have not yet thought through what you think about a certain situation
- You don’t feel skilled enough to handle the type of interaction that will play out if you engage
- You are in physical or emotional danger
- You don’t have the privacy or necessary communication medium to match the requirements for the situation
- You don’t have all the information you need to make an informed decision about the topic/situation
- You don’t have time to give the conflict/relationship the attention and care required for a successful outcome
Yet, given any of these reasons mentioned above, why couldn’t I just shrug my shoulders and not respond to my feisty uncle at the family dinner table or just never return someone’s text if I don’t want to communicate with them?
In our minds, we may think that the other person understands why we are not communicating or responding to him or her, but we put ourselves in a very strange position by not deliberately communicating anything at all.
The tricky part with merely avoiding contact or any type of communication is that others will create their own stories about why we are not communicating. Usually, the stories others tell themselves are not positive ones about our intentions or motivations.
Given the tendencies described through the fundamental attribution error, we are more likely to attribute others’ silence or lack of communication to negative character traits rather than to environmental factors. When regarding ourselves, we are more likely to give ourselves credit for extenuating circumstances for not communicating or engaging.
On the flip side, when others evaluate our silence or lack of communication, they will not usually give as much weight to our particular environmental factors when evaluating our behavior. In short, we are more likely to interpret others’ silence in negative terms and attribute it to the other’s negative character traits, and vice-versa.
Certainly, when dealing with strangers, we may not need to communicate anything at all. However, with our loved ones and even acquaintances, we can prevent a lot of heartache and stymie the creation of false beliefs or untrue stories by communicating that we are not ready, not willing, or otherwise unable to communicate at the time.
For example, several years ago, my child’s elementary school teacher just stopped showing up for work. Of course, we expected a sub for a few days if the teacher was sick, but the teacher’s absence became long and extended with no explanation from the school administration.
If this teacher had been a rather bad one, perhaps all the parents would have been pleased with the teacher’s absence, but she was a beloved teacher by many students and parents. Her absence was marked, strange, and demanded an explanation.
As the days of the teacher’s absence led into weeks and the weeks led into months, parents developed their own theories about why this teacher was no longer teaching our children. Rumors and gossip spread but the administration remained silent throughout this period.
Finally, after a month or two of waiting, the principal called a meeting in which she affirmed that she still had no information to share with us, the parents and school community. We were all pretty upset by this lack of information at the meeting, but by this time, our anger, frustration, and patience been exacerbated by the administration’s longtime lack of communication from the beginning.
In my annoyance with the situation, I raised my hand and pointedly asked the principal: “Why didn’t you communicate with us at all during the past couple of months?”
She responded by saying that she had had no information to communicate with us. I persisted in my line of thinking and said, “It is better to communicate that you don’t have anything to communicate at the time rather than leaving us to wonder about what’s going on with the administration.”
I still feel that same sense of responsibility to communicate that I’m not ready, willing, or able to communicate in certain situations for a variety of reasons. I believe that we can use very simple phrases to communicate these ideas with others and prevent a lot of heartache and misunderstanding.
1. When not ready to communicate:
- “I haven’t read through all the documents yet so I’m not sure what I think. Could I finish that first before we discuss what to do?”
- “I’m so angry right now. I cannot even begin to process what I think or feel about the topic. I’ll let you know when I’ve cooled down.”
- I’m really stressed about what’s going on at school. I cannot even think about another big thing right now. Once finals are over, can we talk things through?”
- “Wow, that’s a really tough topic, and I have many thoughts on it. I don’t think I’m ready to have a real discussion about it yet.”
2. When not willing to communicate:
- “I know this is an important topic to you, but I just don’t want to go there. I hope that you’ll respect that.”
- “I cannot talk about this right now. Can we push this one off to another time?”
- “We tend to disagree on this topic. Can we keep that off the table for now?”
3. When not able to communicate:
- “My emotions are so high right now. I don’t think I could have a productive conversation. Can I let you know if and when I’m ready for that?
- “I don’t think this is a good conversation to have online. Could we save that until we’re in person or can talk live on the phone?”
- “I know this is an important topic, but the kids are screaming at me while we’re talking on the phone. How about a raincheck for tonight once the kids are in bed?”
Punting conflict for another time is not a panacea answer to all the conflicts in our lives. We all know that a more nuanced and multi-pronged approach works best. We are much more likely to strengthen our relationships when we use all five of the general conflict approaches of avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating rather than just fighting or fleeing.
Yet, despite the desirability of using all five approaches appropriately throughout our many relationships, we benefit ourselves and others when we communicate about our readiness, willingness, and ability to confront both expected and surprise conflicts that arise in our lives.
Remember, in football, punting takes skill, precision, and a lot of practice. In our own lives, punting conflict requires the same: skill, precision, and a lot of practice to be effective within the larger framework of our overall conflict resolution strategy.