I had a conversation not long ago in which I revealed a not-monumental, but at the same time, not nonexistent frustration. The person I was talking to expressed some surprise. “Why did I not know this?”
Probably, I could have answered, “Because some carpets hide whales better than others.”
I did not. But I could have. And the other person probably would have understood.
Claire Trévien has crafted a poem, titled Whales, in which she writes
Whales lived under our house
making the hinges rock, splitting cups and cheeks.
Stray socks melted in their comb-mouths
their fins sliced through conversations,
we found bones in our cups of tea.
In the kind of work I do, I have had occasion to be under a house. I’ve seen a good many things in those tight, damp, altogether unpleasant places. But never a whale. Not even a small one.
There’s just no room.
The poem goes on to suggest the same:
No one believed me, of course,
the carpet looked too smooth to hide a mammal.
The image of whales taking up residence under the house, swimming to and fro under the imported rug, has a boisterous ring of absurdity to it. And yet, it’s the very thing we do when we attempt to pretend that our unflapped demeanor, our straight face, is smooth enough to hide our feelings. The authors of Difficult Conversations suggest as much, noting that “Feelings are too powerful to remain peacefully bottled. They will be heard one way or another, whether in leaks or bursts.”
Just like sometimes we need to have the “What Happened?” Conversation, in some cases we need to have the Feelings Conversation—the one in which we put our feelings out on the table, despite the risk, understanding that we “can’t have an effective conversation without talking about the primary issues at stake,” and in those cases, “feelings are at the heart of what’s wrong.”
Too many times, though, we’re not sure we want to take the risk, and so we attempt to “frame feelings out of the problem.” The authors explain that it is a common pattern to “frame the problem exclusively as a substantive disagreement and believe that if only we were more skilled at problem-solving, we’d be able to lick the thing. Solving problems seems easier than talking about emotions.” But because the true problem is neglected in these situations, it’s not addressed and “emotions have an uncanny knack for finding their way back into the conversation, usually in not very helpful ways.”
Like finding bones in your cups of tea.
One suggestion the authors offer for avoiding these whales under the house is to learn where our feelings hide. “Feelings are very good at disguising themselves. Feelings we are uncomfortable with disguise themselves as emotions we are better able to handle; bundles of contradictory feelings masquerade as a single emotion; and most important, feelings transform themselves into judgments, accusations, and attributions.” Part of identifying these emotions is to explore our “emotional footprint,” exploring the range of feelings we have long believed are acceptable and those which are not.
Once we have a better understanding of what those feelings are, we can begin to engage in what the authors refer to as negotiating with our feelings. Because our feelings are “formed in response to our thoughts,” the authors note we can often change our feelings by changing our thoughts. They give an example of this process:
Imagine that while scuba diving, you suddenly see a shark glide into view. Your heart starts to pound and your anxiety skyrockets. You’re terrified, which is a perfectly rational and understandable feeling.
Now imagine that your marine biology training enables you to identify it as a Reef Shark, which you know doesn’t prey on anything as large as you. Your anxiety disappears. Instead you feel excited and curious to observe the shark’s behavior. It isn’t the shark that’s changed; it’s the story you tell yourself about what’s happening. In any given situation our feelings follow our thoughts.
I’ve watched the way a person can shrink into themselves for lack of willingness to acknowledge their feelings, or when they do acknowledge them, for a lack of ability to effectively negotiate them by way of a better story. I’ve been known to say in the observance of such a life that denial kills. As Trévien’s Whales closes, the whales have been circling the house, playing a game we used to call Ding-Dong Ditch when I was a kid, ringing the bell and running off. She says…
I’d sometimes forget then trip
over the carcass of one beached
in the gutter.
Emotions always come to call. Best to negotiate before they wreak a quiet or a raucous havoc.
We’re reading Difficult Conversations together this month as part of the Friendship Project. Are you reading along? What was most interesting to you as you read this week’s chapters? Were you able to think of a Feelings Conversation that you’ve had that? How have you been able to shift your stance in the past? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
October 11: Chapters 1-4 The “What Happened?” Conversation
October 18: Chapter 5 The Feelings Conversation
October 25: Chapter 6 The Identity Conversation
November 1: Chapters 7-12 Create a Learning Conversation
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Photo by Paul Hudson, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Willingham.
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