“Say What You Need to Say,” But…

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I have always found the following very difficult. When to discuss a subject, incident, action that upset me with the person involved? My thinking goes something along the lines of this:

What do I hope to gain by having this conversation?

Am I looking for this person to change how they act when it pertains to me?

Will it even matter if I say something?

Given that we own our reactions are my feelings of ‘X’ even valid?

I mostly take the path of least resistance and don’t say anything because I generally assume it is fruitless to do so.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

With respect to these situations there are two errors of general policy one can make: Peace at any price, or confrontation for its own sake.

It sounds like you’re making the first of these errors.

Peace at any price means that regardless of the facts, ‘I won’t say or question anyone about anything.’ The motivating factor here is almost always fear. Not fear of anything specific, just generalized fear. Most often, this fear is grounded in a false belief that, ‘If I say something then I won’t be liked, and that’s a disaster.’ Or: ‘If I say something there will be a horrible, cruel and painstaking backlash,’ when there almost certainly will not be — and if there were, it says more about the other person’s irrational response than your own decision to express a concern.

Confrontation for its own sake means, ‘I will confront, question and challenge regardless of the context, and even before thinking it out.’ Some people like to challenge, cajole or question because it gives them a phony sense of competence, not out of a desire to really grasp objective knowledge.

Nobody consciously adopts either of these erroneous stances. I’m simply giving words to what essentially resides beneath the surface in many people.

Now I’ll go through each of your questions, one-by-one.

‘What do I hope to gain by having this conversation?’

That’s always a good question. Do a cost-benefit analysis—not in numerical terms, but qualitative terms. Normally a cost-benefit analysis goes like this: ‘I have $600 to spend. Here’s the kind of computer I might buy. Here’s what I’ll get out of buying it, here’s what I’ll have to avoid spending in order to get it. Here’s what I could obtain by purchasing a cheaper computer, or holding out for a more expensive one.’

It’s similar when it comes to telling someone that he or she bothered you.

‘What do I stand to gain by doing this? What do I stand to lose? What’s the most likely outcome, given what I know about this person?’

Think of what you know about this person, and what kind of reaction is most likely. Think about whether the reaction is worth it, i.e. what you stand to gain or lose by such a reaction.

Next question: ‘Am I looking for this person to change how they act when it pertains to me?’

I would assume the answer is usually yes, but it’s still a good question to ask. A good follow-up question here is, ‘Am I prepared that he or she might not change anything he or she is currently doing?’ That’s important. If it’s not worth asking once you are rejected or ignored, then it doesn’t make sense to ask—unless the thing you’re asking about is more important than the issue of rejection, which it sometimes is. Sometimes what you’ll lose by not asking is no worse than what you stand to lose by questioning or commenting. You’ve got to rank your values and priorities here.

Next question: ‘Will it even matter if I say something?’

I think what you’re driving at here is: ‘Will it be worth it to me, just to have brought it up?’ Sometimes people want to write a note or an email/text about something that troubles them. This gives the person the choice to ignore the note or email/text—and even to proceed as if you had never sent it. This response is more common than you may realize, so always be ready for it. Usually such a response means, ‘What you’re saying doesn’t concern me,’ or ‘This isn’t any of your business or concern.’ When it’s someone you know well, it’s more of a hostile statement, if anything.

Think about what you’ll do if that happens. If you can honestly say, ‘Having said my piece is worth it, even if there’s no response,’ then that’s a factor in favor of doing it.

Final question: ‘Given that we own our reactions are my feelings of ‘X’ even valid?’

Excellent point. Just because you feel it doesn’t make it so. Feelings have a way of distorting, amplifying or leaving out significant facts before drawing conclusions. It’s not that feelings are always wrong, or inherently ‘bad;’ it’s just that feelings are not a sole or final means to truth or knowledge. Imagine if science were run by feelings. Imagine if businesses were run by feelings. It would get crazy and calamitous pretty quickly. It’s the same with any area of endeavor in human life—any area.

Make sure that YOU are convinced of the rationality of your own feelings before expressing them. Don’t depend on others to validate your convictions or opinions for you. They will not always do so. That doesn’t automatically make you wrong, or wrong to say what you want to say.


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