Recovering from False Perceptions


Dear Emily,

I have found that participants in long-term relationships tend to keep score in their emotional bank accounts. Over time we may build up a mental image of the other person—often a fictitious persona which is heavily weighted toward the things that bug us most about him or her. The perception of the other person can become worse and worse over time as we interpret our present actions in terms of the fictitious persona. Two questions: a. Suppose you realize that your spouse is not the fictitious persona. Is it possible to repair the damage? If so, how do you structure that crucial conversation? b. Suppose this sort of thing happens at work. Is it possible to repair the damage? If so, how do you structure the crucial conversation?

Regards,
Wanting to Repair the Damage

Dear Wanting,

To converse or not to converse? That is the question. Or is it? Asking, “How should I structure the conversation?” presupposes that you should have a conversation. I am not sure you should.

Not have a conversation?! I know. It seems like blasphemy. I have spent the last ten years teaching thousands of people how to hold a crucial conversation. During that time, I have watched people move through a fairly predictable process. It looks something like this:

“For years and years, I have suffered in silence. I have failed to speak up because I do not have the skills to do so. Whenever I have spoken up, it has backfired, causing me untold heartache. I have realized that staying silent rarely brings me negative consequences, or at least I don’t see those consequences directly.

“Then, I attend a Crucial Conversations class and I am reborn! I understand the choice I am making when I stay silent and I commit to leaving silence behind. With my newfound skills, I sally forth into the great wide world, holding conversations that have been pent up for years. It is invigorating. I talk, and talk, and talk.

“Then comes the day when I hold a crucial conversation using all my best skills and it doesn’t work. I don’t feel freed and empowered afterward; I feel small. What has happened? Have I lost my voice?”

Of course, the answer is no. You haven’t lost your voice or your skills. You may have just lost your bearings a bit. You see, not all conversations need to be held, not all topics need to be addressed.

When deciding whether or not to hold a conversation, I would suggest you get really clear on why you are holding it before you even consider how to hold it.

So let’s take a look at your conversation and figure out why you are considering holding the conversation. You have come to the stark realization that you have misjudged someone, creating a fictitious persona that amplifies their negative attributes and ignores (we can suppose) their positive ones. Now you want to talk to that person about it. Why?

Reasons to Hold the Conversation

High on the list of reasons to hold a conversation is because you need to apologize. Because of your perception, you have treated the other person poorly. That definitely deserves an apology. Your apology should focus on the ways in which you have behaved poorly, acknowledge the pain that may have caused, include a sincere commitment to change, and a humble request for grace. Notice what is not on the list? A long discussion of why you acted as you did. Apologies suffer when the emphasis is on an explanation of the past rather than commitment to the future.

A second reason to hold the conversation is that you want some behaviors to change. Yes, you have spun up this fictitious persona in your head but the original story was probably based on some reality. It may be that you still want that reality to change. If this is the case, focus on the specific behaviors you would like to see change.

Reasons Not to Hold the Conversation

Here is the big one—you want to feel better. You are full of mixed emotions about your new insight, proud that you had the self-awareness to come to it, and perhaps somewhat ashamed of your prior thoughts about this person. This is all fair. You should be proud of your insight. It takes a fair degree of humility to admit to yourself that you have been wrong. And it is natural to want to share this. It will make you feel better to acknowledge the error of your past thinking and commit to do better. What is the harm in that?

The harm is that it is self-focused. You want the other person to know that you have judged him or her poorly all this time but now with your new insight you realize he or she are really not the terrible person you thought he or she was. This is not something you have to get off your chest. In fact you probably need to carry the weight of this with you for a while. Carrying that weight will help you change your thinking patterns toward this person and remind you not to judge so quickly.

The question you have to ask is: will it make the other person feel better? Will it help this person to know how you have judged him or her in the past and of your commitment to change your thinking in the future? You absolutely need to apologize for poor behavior. You may not need to apologize for poor thoughts. You have done this person wrong by judging him or her. Now you need to do right by him or her and consider the impact of sharing your new insight, your remorse, and your commitment to change.

Best of Luck,
Emily