Dear Crucial Skills,
What if you know you blew it in a crucial conversation, know you should go back and clean up the mess, but you don’t want to? What if you are too angry/hurt to say you’re sorry without feeling like a hypocrite for saying it because how you really feel is angry and hurt—and that’s what you’d really like to express?
Dear Not Sorry,
I love honest people. Thanks for the disarming genuineness of your question.
I’ve got a couple of thoughts that I hope are helpful to you. The first may help change the “story” that is causing you to feel angry/hurt. The second is a modest suggestion that can sometimes help you improve a crucial conversation even when you do feel upset. Here goes.
First, my personal experience is that the more invested I am in convincing myself that my feelings of anger or hurt are “right,” the more likely it is that I am wrong. Here’s a trivial example of the important point I’m trying to make. Perhaps you’ve been in the situation I was in the other day. I was attempting to merge into the right hand lane so I could make it to a freeway on-ramp. There was a car in my blind spot that honked to let me know of his existence when I began to make the merge. I quickly steered back into my lane and slowed down to get behind him. But he slowed down, too—just enough that he was still in my blind spot. So I attempted to accelerate. He accelerated and stayed in the same spot. So I tried slowing again. Finally, he punched his accelerator, roared past me and flashed me a one-finger salute as he sped away.
Now, here’s the interesting part. Can you imagine what was going on in my head when he drove off? Without conscious effort on my part, I immediately began describing to myself all the things I had done to try to be considerate of this goon. In addition, I created an image of him in my mind that was wonderfully despicable. Trust me, it went way beyond “goon.” Why did I do that? Why did I care so much that I had to both find a way to make myself out as innocent and cast him as a creep? I’d never see him again. He was gone. And yet for more of the ride to a distant city than I’d like to admit, he was still on my mind. I was vigorously shaping a story about him and me and what had happened.
Then it all changed. At one point many miles later I changed my story. The new one acknowledged my fault—and even helped explain some of the dingbat’s behavior as a reaction to my own. Here it is: “I’ll bet he thinks I was trying to cut him off, then was slowing down and speeding up in sync with him just to spite him.” In an instant I felt embarrassed rather than self-righteous. When my story changed, my emotions did, too.
So, here’s comment number one. Master your story. If you’re feeling angry or hurt, it could be that you are so invested in being right and not admitting fault that you are exaggerating the other person’s weaknesses while covering up or minimizing your own.
Second suggestion: Sometimes even after examining and revising your story, you still feel hurt or upset. But you don’t want to feel that way. You want the relationship to be better. You want things to improve—but you don’t want to fake good feelings in order to get there. If this is the case, you’re in luck. If your motives are right, you can actually build safety and open up a crucial conversation even though you’re still upset. Rather than pretending to have good feelings, you can show your positive intentions by sharing your desire for good feelings. For example:
“You know, I left our last conversation kind of upset. And I haven’t been able to resolve it in my mind since we talked. I really don’t want to feel this way. I’d like to have good and positive feelings between us, and wonder if we could talk about what happened as a way of figuring things out. I’m hoping not just to tell you what’s not working for me, but to find out what I’m doing that’s not working for you.”
Can you see how this might work? People can feel okay about you having less than positive feelings toward them so long as they know you are committed enough to the relationship to want to get back to those feelings.
I hope these suggestions are helpful. The emotional honesty I read in your question makes me optimistic that you’ll know how to make use of these ideas.