Psychological Flexibility in Difficult Conversations

It struck me that psychological flexibility is very powerful in relationships, and particularly in having difficult conversations.  However, this is something I rarely talk about on this blog (Rachel maybe more so).  So I thought sharing a personal example of how psychological flexibility has helped me could be useful.

Earlier this year my Grandfather died and I wrote a bit about that at the time.  Having dreaded his death for much of my adult life I am grateful for the skills that psychological flexibility gave me because they helped shape my response to his decline.

In May 2011 I went home to Liverpool to visit my Grandfather, who was then aged 92.  He had been moved to a home, much to his disgust. He was grumpy because he felt he’d been locked in there against his will. He was surrounded by old women, many of them even grumpier, so we went outside for a cup of tea.

It was cold outside and windy. For some reason, we got onto talking about the gloomiest of subjects – unusual because we usually kept things light and jovial. But that day we both felt low. We talked about how he missed his daughter, Rowena, who died before I was born. It felt uncomfortable and sad.

It was sad. I felt like crying.

Some years ago I would have taken this discomfort as a sign to run away. I may have cracked a joke, or left a bit earlier, or hurriedly changed subjects.

But this time I sighed and stopped and just sat there. In the middle of the day, sitting with my Grandfather, sharing time, sharing life. I gave up the struggle with it, and just shared what was.

I look back now and am proud of what we did that day.  Above all, I’m so glad I didn’t just run away.

Psychological flexibility has not saved me from difficult conversations.  But it has lessened the struggle I have with my own thoughts and emotions during them.  That has given me more energy to focus on what matters and I have been more willing to ‘show up’ to what matters to me in everyday life.

Doesn’t the workplace need more of this?

About the same time as seeing my Grandfather I went to a workshop run by another hero of mine, Kelly Wilson.  He showed me this poem, and it means a lot.  But not as much as the difficult moments I shared with my Grandfather last year, drinking lukewarm tea in the cold.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Naomi Shahib Nye, “Kindness”

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