Dealing with the Elephant in the Room
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Dealing with the Elephant in the Room

Moving from Tough Conversations to Healthy Communication

Mike Bechtle

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  1. 240 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Dealing with the Elephant in the Room

Moving from Tough Conversations to Healthy Communication

Mike Bechtle

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About This Book

Most people want to avoid tough conversations. Whether it's with a spouse, a friend, a boss, a coworker, or a child, tough conversations create high anxiety--and often lingering resentments. Communication expert Dr. Mike Bechtle offers practical help. He equips readers with the skills they need in order to handle conflict with the important people in their lives. Readers learn to be better prepared for hard conversations by learning to listen, to give and receive genuine feedback, and to saturate relationships with kindness. With the right skills and tools, anyone can feel more confident handling the elephant in the room and other conversational quicksand.

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Information

Publisher
Revell
Year
2017
ISBN
9781493410767

Part 1
The Process of Conversation

When I want to learn how to do something, I find a book on the topic. I read the book, gain as much knowledge as I can, and then try to do it. I am usually successful, but it can take a long time.
If I had a leaky faucet, for example, I would pick up a book on do-it-yourself plumbing. I’d read about how faucets work. Then I’d study the different types of faucets. I would read about what causes leaks and the most common ways to fix those leaks. Then I would make sure I had the right tools and start working on the faucet. With the book in one hand and a wrench in the other, I would start taking the faucet apart. After each step, I’d check the book to make sure I had done it correctly and to familiarize myself with the next step.
Then I met my father-in-law. When he wanted to fix something, he didn’t read a book. He grabbed some tools and started dismantling it. He would figure it out by looking and experimenting. In almost every case, he identified what needed to be done—and it took a lot less time than my approach.
They were a waterskiing family. So when I married his daughter, he taught me how to water-ski. “Don’t you dare go get a book on waterskiing,” he said. “I’m going to hand you a rope and push you off the back of the boat. You better hang on.” And I quickly learned how to ski.
I’ve gotten much better over the years. I still like to read about things, but I’ve learned the value of just starting on something.
Relationships require the ability to do both. They’re complicated and messy, and they don’t come with instructions. Books can help with understanding them, but we have to jump in and do the hard work of growing those relationships.
So let’s start with the book work. This section explores how relationships and communication work at the most basic level. Once we lay that foundation, we’ll get the tools we need and learn the skills of building relationships that thrive instead of just survive.

1
Elephant Prevention

Some people can’t sleep because they have insomnia. I can’t sleep because I have internet.
Anonymous
Have you ever felt that your communication in a key relationship was strained, but you didn’t know exactly what was happening? You pretend everything is okay, but it just doesn’t feel right. You’re not sure if the other person feels the same way, but you sense that they do. You’re afraid to bring it up because the conversation might become uncomfortable.
There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s infecting your relation­ship. Like a malignant growth, you avoid talking about it for fear that it will be real. If we ignore it, we think it doesn’t exist.
Part of the problem is that we get used to having the elephant around. We don’t talk about it, and it becomes easier to ignore over time. We don’t notice that it’s growing, because it happens slowly. It’s like when someone hasn’t seen our kids for six months, and they’re amazed at how much the kids have grown. We don’t notice the growth because it has been so gradual. But to anyone else, it’s obvious.
Toxic communication patterns in our relationships also start slowly, and we don’t want to talk about them. They’re uncomfortable. After a while, we get used to those patterns and they seem normal. It’s like mold growing behind our walls. If we don’t do the hard work of dealing with the patterns, our relationship could be in jeopardy.
Nobody likes tough conversations. They’re not nearly as much fun as easy conversations. But they’re the key to keeping the elephants out of the room. If the elephants are already big, it’s going to take significantly more work to remove them, and the conversations could be painful.
The best approach is to have the tough conversations when the elephant is little. Someone has to have the courage to identify the elephant and start talking about it.
Too often, people see the elephant and start blaming each other for letting it in the room. They work against each other instead of working together to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the elephant wanders around the room fluffing the pillows and deciding where to sleep.
We get in trouble when we see each other as the problem instead of the elephant.
Handcrafted Relationships
My father-in-law is a master woodworker. Each of his three daughters’ homes contains pieces of furniture, cabinetry, and design elements that express his love and creativity. When our kids were growing up and needed something for their room, their first thought was always, “Grandpa could build that for me.” He usually did, and they loved it.
His specialty has become turned segmented wooden bowls. In what seems like a geometric impossibility, he cuts hundreds of small pieces of exotic hardwoods at precise angles, glues them together, and makes museum-quality bowls in which every seam of the intricate design matches perfectly.
A few months ago, I was leading a seminar in Honolulu. One evening, I saw turned segmented bowls in a gallery in a high-end shopping center. They looked great but didn’t match the quality my father-in-law produces.
I’ve done some woodworking and might be able to make a simple bowl. To the average person, it might look like any other bowl. But to someone who knows quality, it wouldn’t compare to the ones my father-in-law makes. He’s spent his life paying his dues to perfect his skills. I haven’t. True quality takes time. When things are mass-produced, they cost a lot less than things that are handcrafted, but they aren’t as good.
Relationships are the same way. Good ones take time and work. When we get a new boss or co-worker, make a new friend or move into a new neighborhood, we form new relationships. They might feel strong at the beginning, and the connections are energizing. But the longer those relationships continue, the more challenges they face. For some relationships, those challenges pull them apart and the relationship ends. But for others, the challenges draw them together, becoming the building blocks for relationships that endure.
Relationships take work. If there’s tension with a cubicle partner, it drains our energy at work. An unreasonable teacher or classmate can make a semester seem like an eternity. A strained relationship with a landlord or tenant is like a black cloud that hangs over the relationship.
The more important a relationship is to us, the more work it takes. That work takes place through communication. The longer a relationship continues, the more challenging the communication becomes, and it’s easy to find an elephant in the living room and wonder when it arrived. Knowing the stages a relationship goes through can provide clues to elephant prevention.
There are eight stages that relationships go through as they mature. These stages look different in different types of relationships, so they need to be adapted to each situation. But the basic process is the same.
Let’s see how this applies to a typical couple. Their relationship might progress like this:
1. Attraction. Two people catch each other’s attention. Something about the way the other looks, talks, or acts produces the first spark of interest. (These first impressions take place in every connection, from a dating relationship to a job interview.)
2. Approach. That interest leads them to connect with each other, usually in some type of conversation. They find something they experience together to talk about, whether it’s the event they’re attending, the environment, or some other common ground.
3. Admiration. During the conversation, they use that common ground to explore other possibilities of mutual interest. The more they discover about each other, the more they want to keep discovering. So they set up future times to connect.
4. Attention. The couple enjoys being together, so they look for opportunities to be together more often. Each is on their best behavior, trying to impress the other person. Eventually, they commit to a relationship.
5. Accommodation. The relationship grows, and they focus on making each other happy. Most of their conversations have been about the things they have in common. But over time, their uniqueness comes out, and they have to explore their differences. That can lead to some uncomfortable conversations, but their commitment to each other drives them to find solutions.
6. Anticipation. After the wedding, they ride their high emotions as they begin their life together. They’re excited, and they’re happy. Sure, they have lots of little disagreements, but they’re so much in love that they find ways to work through them. The energy of the relationship carries them through the tough times. (This is often when the baby elephant sneaks in. “Love is blind” means that our attention is on the excitement of the relationship, so we’re not paying attention to the little stuff that happens around us.)
7. Apathy. The relationship grows, but life gets busy. The initial excitement wears off, and daily pressures of work and other commitments begin to grow. Those little disagreements still come up, but there is less romantic energy to work on them. Tackling the tough issues becomes more challenging, and resources are more limited. The little elephant has found his place in the house and settled in.
8. Arrangement. At this point, couples begin to form patterns of communicating. Generally, those patterns fall into one of two categories:
  1. dealing with the tough issues by talking about them
  2. avoiding the tough issues because they’re uncomfortable
The first category takes a lot of work. Neither person is an expert, so they’re probably at a loss for solutions. But they hang in there and work on the problems, going through the initial discomfort to avoid a lot of pain later. When the pressure comes, they keep it on the outside of their relationship, using it to push them together. They acknowledge the elephant and take steps to send it on its way.
The second category is the path of least resistance. The couple becomes irritated with each other because the problem isn’t being dealt with. That irritation grows under the surface, building layer after layer of protection—like an onion growing from the inside out. When the pressure comes, they let that pressure come between them, pushing them apart. Those layers protect them from each other. But they’ve also protected themselves from seeing the elephant.
The Decision Point
When couples reach this fork in the road, they don’t have a road map to figure things out. Sometimes they choose the path of connecting, recognizing the need to work through the tough stuff. But too often they choose the path of disconnecting, because it’s an easier path. The elephant doesn’t go away; the couple just doesn’t talk about it. That’s dangerous. If the issues aren’t dealt with, they grow. The couple pretends everything is good, but there’s a toxic issue growing under the surface.
My nephew and his family live in Minot, North Dakota. The house they were renting was growing mold. They didn’t notice it when they first moved in, but over time their health was compromised. They began to develop symptoms of asthma and other issues. The problem was toxic, and it was growing, and they finally had to move out. They had to make the tough choices to deal with the problem so it didn’t ruin their lives.
That’s what happens in relationships when little issues are ignored; they become big issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s a work setting or a personal setting. If those issues are not addressed, they can compromise the health of the relationship.
Why We Don’t Ask for Help
We might feel like our relationship is perfect. So when the elephant gets bigger and smellier, we don’t want to spoil that image. That’s exhausting, because it takes a lot of energy to pretend that we’re okay when we’re not. We’re not being honest about the elephant, which means we don’t deal with it. We’re embarrassed to admit that we need help because we feel shame.
That’s why we don’t want to make a doctor’s appointment until we’ve lost weight and started exercising regularly. We feel shame and want to solve the problem ourselves to show we’re in control. But hiding the problem from others makes it almost impossible for us to get help. We don’t talk about it. We sequester the elephant in the bedroom when people visit, trying to convince them that we’re okay. But it doesn’t work. They can smell that something’s not right.
Is There Hope?
A few years ago, I weighed about twenty pounds more than I do now. When my granddaughter, Elena, was just starting to talk, she toddled up to me, poked me in the belly, and said, “Baby?” She knew what pregnant moms looked like and made the association. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was honest.
Maybe we need to be as honest as our kids. They’re the ones who will say, “Hey! Did you know there’s an elephant in the middle of the room? Wow! It stinks! You should get rid of it.”
Here’s the thing: It’s possible to deal with the elephant. There are some basic principles of communication that help us to do the heavy lifting. But they require action. We can’t just hope the situation will get better. We have to make choices and do the work for change to take place.
Healthy relationships will face increasingly greater challenges as they grow. But that’s okay, because we will have the resources to handle those tough times. It’s like working out with weights. If we’re out of shape, we don’t start with heavy weight lifting. We start by getting off the couch. We use light weights at first, because that’s all our muscles can handle. But as we get stronger, we’re able to lift heavier weights. If we tried to lift those weights at the beginning, we’d be sore and risk injury. Little steps begin the journey toward health and fitness.
The One Place We Have Control
We can’t force another person to change. We can influence them, but we can’t force them. The only person we have control over is ourselves.
As our relationships grow, we can discover how to take responsibility for our actions and our choices, and in the process, we may influence others to change. There are no guarantees, but there are basic principles we can follow to take those first steps toward healthier relationships.
We need to focus on expectancy rather than expectations. Rather than trying to squeeze a relationship into a picture we have in our minds, we need to anticipate the creative masterpiece that ca...

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