“Would anyone like to role play a tough conversation?” I ask. By their response, it looks like I’ve asked if anyone would like their hair pulled out one strand at a time.
They look down at the table, then sneak wide-eyed looks at each other.
I had just finished teaching my 7 Steps to Tough Conversations with a group of people at a local Housing Authority Community Center. They were okay with most of the steps, except for one: Share From Your Heart.
I had explained that instead of launching accusatory statements, which only make the other person defensive, you have a better chance at deep connection if you share your softer feelings from your heart. That means expressing your fear, your loneliness, your hurt, your sadness.
Lara, a dark-haired woman with a strong voice, blurts out, “That’s gonna look WEAK!”
I say, “Yeah, it might look weak to some people.”
She looks disgusted. “Where do you live? Candyland? That don’t work in my world. In my world they gonna jump all over you if you look weak.”
I explain, “And it might not be safe right now to share your heart with those people. But you can start somewhere. You can start here, with your friends.”
Now, I look at the whole group. “So, who is someone in your life you would like to have a tough conversation with?”
Mary, a woman with a bright yellow shirt and a beautiful singing voice, speaks up. “I would like to have a conversation with my cousin!” Mary gets up to make her way forward and sits in one of two chairs at the front of the room.
“Lara, you could play her cousin!” someone else volunteers. Lara rolls her eyes and reluctantly gets up to join Mary in the other chair.
I walk them through Step 1: Assess Your Safety, Step 2: Start with Value, and Step 3: Find a Common Longing, and then move into the very scary Step 4: Share Your Heart.
“So, Mary, what could you say to share your heart with your cousin?”
Mary’s lip curls and her eyes get big as she turns to face Lara. “You is SELFISH! You got something wrong in your head!”
Lara almost jumps out of her skin. “Are you callin’ me SELFISH! Well you…”
I put my hand on Mary’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s stop there.” I turn to Lara. “How does that make you feel?”
“Like I gotta defend myself!”
“Right,” I agree. “So, let’s try this again. Mary, tell your cousin not something about her, but how YOU feel.”
She points at Lara, “I feel like she is SELFISH!”
“Wait, wait. That’s still something about her. What about YOU? How do you feel?”
She stops. Her shoulders droop. “I feel…I feel hurt.”
Whew. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. “Can you please say that to your cousin?”
She turns, looks at Lara and says softly, “I feel hurt.”
“You did it. Thank you. Now, can you tell her specifically when you felt hurt?”
She looks out, remembering, “When I had my surgery and you came over and yelled at me.” She looks back at Lara. “I took care of you after your surgery! And when you yelled at me, that really hurt me.”
I wonder how Lara will respond to that. Her typical response would be tough, defensive and unyielding.
The other option is Candyland. Certainly she won’t choose Candyland.
Lara tries to imagine how Mary’s cousin might be feeling. “Maybe something hurt your cousin, too,” she says, and then responds to Mary as her cousin, “Somebody told me you said something about me,” she pauses, and then continues, “and I was hurt. I just wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. I’m very sorry I hurt you.”
Lara has stepped right into Candyland. But it doesn’t make her weak, it makes her strong, creating a beautiful connection between she and Mary.
Suddenly, something in the air changes. We all feel it. Almost tangible. Solemn. Sacred.
Lara’s vulnerability sparks a vulnerability in Mary no one has ever witnessed. Mary looks out at the room, and then describes her childhood. “I never could go to school because I didn’t have clothes to wear. And I was hungry. We didn’t have any food. One time all of us went 5 days without food. Five days!”
My heart breaks, imagining a little girl and her siblings, no clothes, starving, huddled in a dark, cold house.
I keep my hand on Mary’s shoulder as she tells her story.
“My daddy was a whore and a drunk. He came in one night and said he was gonna kill my sister. We was all pushing on the door to block it so he couldn’t get in. My mama got the rifle and she shot him. He fell down in between us and we all watched his eyes roll back in his head. He died right there at my feet.”
Tragic and sad. Things a child should never experience. Things that follow a child into adulthood and shape defensive patterns of communication.
In a world where you must fight to survive, words become fighting words. Vulnerability means weakness. Weakness means pain.
No wonder this new way of communicating is so foreign, so scary.
Where do they get their courage? I stand, silently, my hand still on Mary’s shoulder. Certainly, they encourage each other as they learn and practice new, healthy ways of navigating tough conversations.
But there is something deeper, even more sacred about this moment.
I ask, “Mary, could you close us in a song?” And she does. And as she sings, tears roll down my face as I hear her strong faith. Her faith that fuels her courage to take these new, now not-so-scary steps.
(Someone in the room recorded the last minute of Mary’s song. To hear it, click on the audio bar below.)