In my last three postings, I’ve highlighted the most common ways in which people deal with conflict. Now I look at the fourth (and least understood) “dance step”.
By the time I met with Moira (name changed), she was beyond distressed. The problem was her mother, who criticized almost every choice she’d made in the wedding planning. Moira’s mother expressed her disappointment with tears, tantrums and long silences.
The proverbial final straw was when Moira, her four bridesmaids and her mother went gown shopping. Everyone except her mom fell in love with “the” dress. Apparently, the bridesmaids teased her mom for not supporting Moira in her choice. Later, Moira’s mom broke down sobbing, accusing the bridesmaids of being disrespectful.
She demanded that Moira force her friends to apologize and if they didn’t, she wanted Moira to un-invite them as bridesmaids. Moira refused. Tears, accusations, and all the stuff of emotional blackmail ensued.
Eventually, her mother admitted that, most likely, the women hadn’t intended to be rude and she may have misinterpreted what they said. Still, she wanted Moira to demand that they apologize.
At the time we met, things were frosty between Moira and her mother. Moira didn’t care if she came to the wedding or not. But, of course, she cared—why else would she cry when she said she didn’t care?
She told me that this was how things went between her and her mother. They argued; didn’t talk; and then got back together—without ever resolving what first led them into not talking. Theirs had been a dance that alternated between being passive and passive-aggressive.
There is, though, one other dance step and that’s to be assertive. You’re assertive when you decide to express your thoughts, feelings, and needs to a person in a clear and respectful way without playing games.
Of all the dance steps, this is the one that most people are unfamiliar with. Yet, it’s the one technique that has the greatest chance of reducing stress and increasing your chances of getting heard.
I suggested to Moira that she have two different conversations with her mother. The first conversation needed to be about the general pattern with which her mother dealt with their disagreements. They had to talk about her emotional blackmail, i.e. unfair demands followed by teary tantrums. Only then could they have the second conversation, which was about the wedding dress incident.
Oftentimes people are difficult because they don’t think they’re appreciated. Most likely, some of that was going on with Moira’s mother.
Here’s the strategy I laid out for Moira, so as to be assertive and draw boundaries.
I suggested she first reassure her mother that she was happy she’s interested in the wedding and wants it to be a perfect day. She also needed to reaffirm that when they disagreed, it was not a rejection of her support.
Once Moira reassured her mother that this whole planning process wasn’t a referendum on their love, she moved on to a discussion of the dress and the bridesmaids (source of the most recent argument).
I suggested a script like this:
“I love my wedding dress. I know it’s not the one you liked. It is, though, the one I love and I’m glad you were there when I found it. I’m sorry things got out of hand with the girls. They didn’t mean to hurt you. I think you know that, too. They want to speak with you and I hope you let them explain what happened. I’m not getting into the middle of this, though, and I don’t want you to give me ultimatums. I feel that you’re pressuring me to take sides and to punish good friends for what is just a misunderstanding. I don’t want this dress to remind me of something that grew way ugly and way out of proportion. I know you don’t want that, either.”
Although Moira resisted, I urged her to give it a try—it’s not like her mother was going to be more reasonable using any of the old tactics.
Moira reassured her mother that she appreciated everything she was doing and explained that rejecting her suggestions wasn’t a rejection of her. That helped to calm her mother’s insecurities.
However, Moira’s conversation about the dress didn’t go as well. Within a week, though, Moira’s mother realized she wasn’t going to get any traction from harping about the incident. Eventually, Moira’s mom and the bridesmaids had their talk and she got her apology.
As the wedding drew closer, Moira’s mom tried to stir up more drama but by then Moira felt confident speaking directly to her. By the time Moira walked down the aisle, she and her mother had laid the groundwork for a healthier way of talking with each other.
And Zach, Moira’s husband, was a relieved man!
Remember: having a hard conversation is hard because we’re not used to this “dance step.” However, no good can come from shouting, shutting down, or manipulating someone we claim to care about. With understanding comes clarity, the bedrock for resolution and healing!