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short breaks while a team of therapists runs to your aid and pumps you full of nifty ideas.

What do you have to work with? The issue at hand, the other

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person, and a brain that’s preparing to fight or take flight. It’s lit­ tle wonder that we often say and do things that make perfect sense in the moment, but later on seem, well, stupid.

“What was I thinking?” you wonder.

The truth is, you were real-time multitasking with a brain that was working another job. You’re lucky you didn’t suffer a stroke.

We’re stumped. Now let’s throw in one more complication. You don’t know where to start. You’re making this up as you go along because you haven’t often seen real-life models of effec­ tive communication skills . Let’s say that you actually planned

for a tough conversation-maybe you’ve even mentally rehearsed. You feel prepared, and you’re as cool as a cucumber. Will you succeed? Not necessarily. You can still screw up, because practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

This means that first you have to know what to practice. Sometimes you don’t. After all, you may have never actually seen how a certain problem is best handled. You may have seen what not to do-as modeled by a host of friends, colleagues, and, yes, even your parents. In fact, you may have sworn time and again not to act the same way.

Left with no healthy models, you’re now more or less stumped. So what do you do? You do what most people do. You wing it. You piece together the words, create a certain mood, and otherwise make up what you think will work-all the while

 

 

6 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS

multiprocessing with a half-starved brain. It’s little wonder that

when it matters the most, we’re often at our worst behavior. We act in self-defeating ways. In our doped-up, dumbed-down

state, the strategies we choose for dealing with our crucial con­

versations are perfectly designed to keep us from what we actu­

ally want. We’re our own worst enemies-and we don’t even realize it. Here’s how this works.

Let’s say that your significant other has been paying less and less attention to you. You realize he or she has a busy job, but you still would like more time together. You drop a few hints about the issue, but your loved one doesn’t handle it well. You

decide not to put on added pressure, so you clam up. Of course, since you’re not all that happy with the arrangement, your dis­ pleasure now comes out through an occasional sarcastic remark.

“Another late night, huh? Do you really need all of the

money in the world?”

Unfortunately (and here’s where the problem becomes self­ defeating) , the more you snip and snap, the less your loved one

wants to be around you. So your significant other spends even less time with you, you become even more upset, and the spi­

ral continues. Your behavior is now actually creating the very thing you didn’t want in the first place. You’re caught in an unhealthy, self-defeating loop.

Or consider what’s happening with your roommate Terry­ who wears your and your other two roommates’ clothes (without

asking)-and he’s proud of it. In fact, one day while walking out the door, he glibly announced that he was wearing something

from each of your closets. You could see Taylor’s pants, Scott’s

shirt, and, yes, even Chris’s new matching shoes-and-socks ensemble. What of yours could he possibly be wearing? Eww!

Your response, quite naturally, has been to bad-mouth Terry behind his back. That is until one day when he overheard you

 

 

WHATS A CRUCIAL CONVERSATION? 7

belittling him to a friend, and you’re now so embarrassed that you

avoid being around him. Now when you’re out of the apartment, he wears your clothes, eats your food, and uses your computer out of spite.

Let’s try another example. You share a cubicle with a four-star

slob and you’re a bit of a neat freak. In Odd Couple parlance,

you’re Felix and he’s Oscar. Your coworker has left you notes written in grease pencil on your file cabinet, in catsup on the back

of a french-fry bag, and in permanent marker on your desk blot­

ter. You, in contrast, leave him typed Post-it notes. Typed. At first you sort of tolerated each other. Then you began to get

on each other’s nerves. You started nagging him about cleaning

up. He started nagging you about your nagging. Now you’re

beginning to react to each other. Every time you nag, he becomes

upset, and, well, let’s say that he doesn’t exactly clean up. Every time he calls you an “anal-retentive nanny,” you vow not to give

in to his vile and filthy ways. What has come from all this bickering? Now you’re neater

than ever, and your cubicle partner’s half of the work area is

about to be condemned by the health department. You’re caught

in a self-defeating loop. The more the two of you push each

other, the more you create the very behaviors you both despise.

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