Getting Past a Communication ImpassePeter Bregman
Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 26, 2011 10:50 AM
What do you do when you have a communication impasse with someone you care about?
Jim* is a friend and colleague whom I hadn't seen for a year. It's been a hard year for Jim and I called him frequently as he navigated his business through tough times.
When I last saw him, Jim asked me to meet with a client of his, Ed, for a few minutes as a favor. I agreed. But when I arrived at Ed's office a few days later, the receptionist told me he was out of the country. He had been expecting me a day earlier, she said, and was disappointed when I hadn't shown up. I apologized and left.
I immediately called Jim, who checked his email and discovered that he had given Ed the wrong day. I told him I was embarrassed and asked him to send a handwritten note to the client apologizing and explaining the error. He promised he would.
We hadn't talked about the missed meeting since it happened. Jim's troubled business had been the focus of our conversations. But I was speaking at a conference in a week and I expected Ed to be there; I wanted to know how things had resolved.
So, recently, when I saw Jim, I asked him whether he had written the letter. He got angry and snapped at me. "I didn't write the letter. Peter, I'm broke. I haven't had a minute to do anything. Can't you understand that?"
I was taken aback, hurt. I mumbled something and walked away. But I couldn't get it out of my head. Why was he snapping at me?
I've always believed that if I simply talk things through with someone I can resolve any issue. So I walked back to him.
"Jim," I said, "I know it's been a hard year, but why are you lashing out at me? I asked about the letter because I might see Ed at a conference. The letter isn't such a big deal to me, but your response really bothers me."
"Well," he answered, "I'm sorry my response bothers you."
Sorry my response bothers you. He didn't apologize for asking me for a favor and then putting me in an embarrassing situation. He didn't apologize for not writing the letter. He didn't even apologize for his response. All he did was acknowledge that his response bothered me. Which bothered me even more.
Intellectually, I understand what was going on. Having a business crash is highly emotional, very strained, and extremely difficult. In that light, my question about the letter seemed trivial and out of place. Add to that his own shame about not having followed through on his commitment and the result was misplaced anger towards me. I get it.
But emotionally it felt like a betrayal of all I had done to support him over the past year. And it left me wondering: Now what?
I could try to talk with him about it again. But I was pretty sure it would go the same way and I would leave feeling more hurt.
I could go around talking to other people about him, getting their perspective, complaining. But that's not who I want to be.
I could write him off completely. But we travel in the same circles and it's unlikely we could avoid each other. I didn't want to get that rush of negative adrenaline every time we were in the same room. And anyway, do I really want to write off everyone whose actions hurt me? I'm sensitive; I might end up alone. Finally, and perhaps most important, I really like Jim. He's been a good friend for 20 years and I enjoy his company. He's funny, interesting, and often warm. I don't want the friendship to end.
The rest of the party was awkward and I left with a bad feeling, not knowing what to do. Eventually, I called my smartest advisor.
My mother is surrounded by people who love her. Recently she told me she was going out with someone who had, quite literally, betrayed her; he went behind her back to buy a rare item that had been promised to her. The seller maintained his commitment to my mother and my mother maintained her relationship with both the seller and the betrayer. How was she able to get over it?
"I know what to expect from him," she told me of her betrayer. "That's the kind of person he is."
"Did you ever talk to him about it?" I asked her.
"No," she said, "Why should I? It wouldn't make a difference. I'm not going to change him. And talking about it won't change the situation."
"But how can you still spend time with him? Don't you get angry when you see him?"
"I'm too tired to be angry every time someone does something I don't like. And I don't want to be alienated from everyone. I enjoy him for his other attributes. But I know what to expect from him."
My mother's insight is profound. Her advice? Live with it.
Jim's response isn't about me, it's about Jim, and I'm living in the space between never speaking to him again and trying to fix things by speaking to him. That space is called accepting people as they are.
Jim's response informs me about Jim. He has a reputation for snapping at people and for using anger to intimidate and avoid. It's just that he never directed it towards me before. It's a part of his character. He may change but I'm not counting on it. My interaction with him offered me data. Data that tells me more about what I should expect from Jim in the future.
But snapping at me isn't all I should expect from him. And knowing that lets me appreciate the parts of Jim I like without becoming distracted by the parts I don't. It lets me accept him fully for who he is, without illusion. And it keeps me safe in our relationship when he acts in ways I don't like.
In retrospect, I would still ask Jim if he had written the letter. But when he snapped at me, I would have said, "I know this year has been hard for you and I'm sorry you've had to go through that. I understand you didn't write the note. That's good to know in case I see Ed at the conference next week." And leave it at that. No hurt. No anger. No avoidance. No passive-aggressive comeback. Just acceptance of the situation and of Jim.
Will my relationship with Jim be more superficial from now on? At first, I was sure it would. But I'm going to try hard not to let it. People are imperfect. That includes my mother's betrayer, it includes Jim, and it also includes me.
Which makes it all the more important not to write off Jim. If I did, then I'd end up writing myself off too. Accepting Jim's imperfection and limitations enables me to accept my own.
Which now includes the realization that no matter how good I think I am at communicating, there are some situations I can't resolve with more communication.
*Names and some details changed
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