Friday, March 5, 2021
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Have the Courage, and a Plan, for the Tough Conversations That Many People Avoid

During your life’s journey, have you ever caught yourself saying, “I wish someone had talked to me about that when I was younger?”  Or, perhaps, you think regretfully to yourself, “I should have talked about that with them a lot sooner.” We often hear people say that “life is short” and we are told to “make every day count.” Yet, unfortunately, because they are awkward, uncomfortable or just plain tough, we will avoid some of the most important conversations that would help us to lead better lives. 

It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, nor your gender, age, race, religion, socioeconomic status or nationality, we humans still haven’t mastered the art of the tough conversation — even though some of the more “experienced folks” know how important these hard conversations are and that the toughest talks delivered at the right time can help avoid heartache and change lives for the better.

Consider these examples of a parent wanting to have a serious talk with a teenager.

Parent: “Hey, Jordan, come here. I want to talk with you. Give me your full attention for the next 30 minutes and I’ll treat you to your favorite dessert after dinner.”

Young Teenager: “Seriously? I was going to catch up on my Instagram posts and then play Fortnite Battle Royale with some friends.”

Parent: “I promise it will only take 30 minutes. I will set my timer. It’s an important subject, so I want you to give me your phone and we are going to turn off all other electronic devices and be focused and intentional with our conversation.”

Young Teenager: “Really, come on. What are we going to talk about?”

Parent: “An important subject that’s currently gripping the nation: race relations and social justice.”

Young Teenager: “I’m cool with that.”

Well now, that went better than you thought. See, all you have to do is try.  So, let’s change the subject and see if we can keep it going.  

Parent: “I want to talk with you about the different kinds of love and intimacy in a relationship.”  

Young Teenager: “Eeeewwww! No way. That’s disgusting. I already know about sex and I’m not talking with you about it!” Teenager then storms out of the house as fast as possible.

Well, that escalated quickly. For some subjects, both parties are just a little more comfortable conversing. Sometimes, such as this case, who didn’t think that talking about love and intimacy with their mom or dad was weird, awkward and just plain gross as a 12-year-old? 

Herein lies a problem. The teenager equates “sex” with love and intimacy and is embarrassed to talk openly about it with a parent. Do they really know the difference between a loving and intimate act and the simple physical act of having sex? This topic is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, but so necessary. Schools will perhaps teach them the biology behind reproduction and warn them about STDs, but they are not likely to teach the values that help develop the behaviors that promote a loving and caring relationship. Even if they do, the kids are likely not to take them seriously when taught in a group setting. They are still immature and likely to joke around or dismiss it. At best, if the kids did listen, parents need to reinforce it.

So where do kids really learn about love, intimacy and sex? From parents who actually model a loving relationship? From their friends? From watching Netflix or HBO? From a pornography website? Parents think they can simply block certain adult-oriented movies and sites from digital devices. While that’s a good start, it won’t always stop their curiosity from getting the best of them. And what if their friends have access to those sites or have figured out a way around them? Inevitably kids are going to experiment and find out from someone, and it seems to be happening at much younger ages. It is the parent or guardian’s role to be a part of that educational process.

Therefore, having the tough conversation about developing a meaningful, deeper relationship is critical. You do this by explaining the differences between loving someone (which includes platonic feelings for friends and family), and being, at an appropriate age, someone’s romantic love interest. Simply giving them the punitive talk about the evils of sex will likely result in either outright defiance or a renewed curiosity precisely because you have made it the forbidden fruit.  Taking the time to educate yourself about age-appropriate conversations and describing the act of lovemaking as a deeply personal, private and mature act will at the very minimum augment what they have learned away from you or help them to see the link between the biology and their feelings.

I did a very unscientific poll of friends and family of various ages to give me a list of some of the toughest conversation topics they have experienced. While certainly not exhaustive, it’s at least a good place for you to start and have a conversation about strategies for having tough conversations.

So here are 20 difficult topics that require the courage and conviction to discuss with others to help educate them, so they are better prepared to handle these real-life situations.

  1. Manners and socially acceptable behavior
  2. Personal hygiene 
  3. Religion and spirituality 
  4. Character traits (courtesy, respect, integrity, etc.)
  5. Race relations, sexuality, diversity and inclusion 
  6. Love (the different kinds), intimacy and sex
  7. Financial literacy and money management
  8. Healthy lifestyle options and choices
  9. Mental health issues, vices and addictions
  10. Career exploration, selection and development
  11. Politics, government and taxes
  12. Conflict resolution and coping skills
  13. Navigating adult relationships, marriage and divorce
  14. Starting a family and raising children
  15. Occupational job performance/expectations
  16. Career transitions including dealing with a dismissal or downsizing
  17. Planning for life in retirement
  18. Dealing with tragedy, extended sickness and loss of life
  19. Dealing with legal problems including incarceration
  20. Preparing for your own death

Wow, that’s a big list. There are plenty of others. How are you supposed to deal with all these issues? One at a time. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. If you have access to the right resources, then take advantage of getting professional assistance if and when you deem it necessary. There are many different strategies and tactics that can help get the conversations started. It’s up to you to care enough to learn them.

Certainly, you can educate yourself by doing your own research. However, too often we simply rely on the great Google god for all our information. While the internet is certainly one place to gather information, it often lacks context and perspective from someone who has actually walked the path and gained real life experience. There are community resources, school counselors, government agencies and a lot of private professionals who can assist. There are also a lot of family and friends to lean on when preparing to have one of these crucial conversations.

Take a few minutes to review the list and think back on your own experiences. Assess how you handled these subjects and how others talked about them with you. What resonated with you?  What would you do differently? Who would you seek out for assistance?

I hope this will inspire you to take the time to recognize which of these conversations you can have and the strategies that might set others up for success, as well as prevent failures before they come to pass. Maybe it will act as a reminder to go seek assistance because you are either uncomfortable doing it yourself or don’t feel qualified to do it alone.  

These are some of the tough conversations that a lot of people choose to avoid. Contrary to popular belief ignorance is not bliss and avoidance is not a strategy if you really want to help someone in your life. Have the courage to have the tough talks at the right times and you can help someone to live a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.