Read the first three bars of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and you’ve essentially just described the precursor to nearly every difficult, uncomfortable conversation you’ll ever have; sweaty palms, weak knees, heavy arms, nerves, vomit. The body’s response to threat of talking is a physiological phenomenon. Because it sucks.
We’ve all been there, B-Rabbit.
We feel something (hopefully positive, but probably negative) and we spend time exploring it, trying our best to articulate exactly what that thing is, and why we feel it. And after putting forth the effort to try and explain something totally intangible, we craft this award-winning monologue in our heads with the intention of a flawless execution, only to face our antagonist and forget everything we so adamantly rehearsed.
Then we choke.
Because while speaking, in theory, is a relatively easy thing to do (open mouth, move tongue, make sounds), communicating is far more complex, and completely, pants-shittingly terrifying.
And rightfully so.
Talking means sharing feelings. And sharing feelings means being vulnerable. And being vulnerable means exposing ourselves to potential, total annihilation. We end up at the mercy of the individual on the receiving end of our thoughts, and hope that whatever comes out of our mouths is met with a little grace and understanding.
It’s like blindly crossing a highway, and praying you don’t get popped by an 18-wheeler.
PS Don’t do that.
But talking is incredibly important. And despite the anxiety associated with an impending “talk,” I’ve found the end result is, more often than not, completely worth it and mostly painless.
My stint as Editor-in-Chief of Michigan State University’s yearbook was a intense crash-course in interpersonal communication and a valuable lesson in empathy. Over the course of two years, I managed a 26-person staff comprised of seven editors, six writers, six photographers, three designers, three distributors, and one business manager. It far exceeded an extra-curricular; this was blood, sweat, and tears kind of work.
We were students, creatives, employees, and peers. We were introverts, extroverts, confrontational, and conflict-avoidant. We were boisterous, shy, young, and learning; we were all different. And we were stressed out, overworked, and trying our best to come out alive.
Our office—given the nature of our work and our being human—was a breeding ground for conflict. I gave all the talks; the “plagiarism-is-unacceptable” talk, the “let’s-discuss-our-differences-and-work-together” talk, and the “I’m-sorry-I-have-to-let-you-go” talk, to name a few.
The full list is anxiety-inducing, and lengthy. None of them were fun.
But, as it is with all of life’s unpleasantries, I learned some things, which ultimately benefited my personal life. “Talking” never really became less scary, but it did become easier to navigate. And while I don’t claim to be a communication expert (because, no), these are my talking points.
Sort your thoughts.
Every conflict, every hurt feeling, and every “talk” I’ve ever encountered has been formatted in a manner that mirrors the outline of a thesis paper. I pen a problem, bullet examples, and elaborate. It helps me understand my issues, organize my thoughts, and build a case for whatever I’m about to spew. So, when the time comes to open my mouth, I don’t find myself lost, confused, and rambling. Or forgetting a point that mattered.
Use “I” language.
“I” language allows you to express yourself honestly and clearly, and helps minimize hurting the human at the end of your words. Something like, “I feel disappointed when you miss a deadline because I get the impression you don’t care about contributing to this book” versus “You’re lazy, and you don’t give a shit.” It’s less hostile, less accusatory, and leaves an open line of communication. Fact, you can’t tell someone how they feel. Try framing your thoughts like this: I feel (insert feeling) when you (insert behavior) because (insert reason).
And when they dish it back, be open to their input. Accepting criticism is as equally important as having the courage to give it.
Every conversation requires two humans, unless I’m bad-mouthing my laptop, or cursing the driver ahead of me. Two people means two stories. After saying whatever it is you have to say, shut your mouth. And keep it closed. After granting me an opportunity to share my thoughts, I owe my adversary the same opportunity, without interruption, and vice versa. Pay attention, absorb everything, and, you know, breathe.
Words are permanent.
Conversations rooted in feelings are already emotionally charged, and one foul dig can send a dialogue cascading into a messy, rage-induced screaming match. I’ve learned that tact in the face of the tactless is more rewarding than the temporary zing of playing dirty; getting nasty is easy, holding your tongue is not. But there’s strength in restraint, and while a heartily delivered “Go fuck yourself” would feel really damn good, it’s not productive, and it’s not adding value.
Life has no “undo,” and each word, spoken, typed, or tapped, is permanent. At the end of the day, I want to know my words were spent wisely, regardless of the outcome.
Everyone is human.
Chances are, you’re not the only one shitting their pants. Your boss, co-worker, friend, lover, roommate, relative, whoever, is probably just as nervous. We’re all human. Remember that whatever you know about this person is merely a fraction of their story; we are not exposed to the contents of their heads, or their hearts. So whatever happens next, have a little empathy.
Now, start talking.