Tough Talk


I’m still thinking about Kathryn and Oberon in Thea Harrison’s Lionheart. I always love it when two strong-willed characters come together and have to negotiate the dance of partnership. I enjoy seeing how a given author handles the question of, “How do two alphas mate?” The answer, of course, is, “Very carefully.”  And the mechanism, it seems, is through a series of difficult conversations coupled with individual calculations of how much each partner can bend to accommodate the relationship. This is true with romantic relationships as well as friendships and professional engagements. Personal satisfaction and success are in direct proportion to our ability to talk the talk and then walk the walk. 

In my observation, most of us avoid conflict at all costs. This includes having tough talks—the ones where we know someone else isn’t going to like what we have to say. I’ve had a number of these conversations at work recently and I realized something interesting:  while I have absolutely no trouble speaking truth to power about work related topics, my willingness to engage in tough talk is almost nonexistent when the subject is me. I found myself being intimidated by someone in a position of authority who would like me out of my job. My first—and second and third—inclinations were to cave and quit and give this bully what he wanted because he was making my work environment unbearably unpleasant and I just wanted it to stop. 

But I didn’t give into my desire to run and hide. Dealing with this situation required a series of deeply uncomfortable conversations that just about did me in. But in the end, the decision was about living in integrity and not fear or the desire to avoid discomfort. Walking the walk, in this circumstance, involved talking the talk and accepting the consequences of that. Which could have been—and may still be—very negative for me. I decided, however, that if I was going to be forced to leave, I wouldn’t go down without a fight. As I walked out to have one of these conversations, my boss told me, “Come back with your shield or on it.”  This time, I returned with my shield, although it felt heavier than when I left. Next time, who knows? But I did what I had to do to live in accordance with my values. Tough stuff. 

This way of being is even more difficult when it involves romantic relationships. It’s so hard, in fact, that most of us don’t do it. We avoid the difficult conversations and live with the results, which often involve resentment, anger and detachment.  I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it and I have no interest in doing it again. 

In Lionheart, Kathryn and Oberon have an excruciating conversation about what full partnership means and how they will accommodate each other’s needs within the relationship—how much autonomy, how much interdependence, how much negotiation versus independent action they will each give and take. It was a well written passage (no surprise, coming from Thea Harrison!) that reminded me of my favorite Bob Marley quote, “Truth is, everybody is going to hurt you; you just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.” Love hurts.  

I will never forget my first of these conversations I had with a boyfriend. It was with the man who is now my husband, but it was early in the relationship. I needed to find out if we had similar objectives. I was looking for a potential mate and wasn’t sure if he just wanted to have fun. I was older and couldn’t afford to waste time with someone who wasn’t on the same page. I knew that if I didn’t get the answer I needed, it would be devastating because I would have to leave him, and I desperately didn’t want to. But I also realized that not knowing would be worse. In Lionheart, Kathryn gives Oberon an ultimatum. I’m not a fan of ultimatums. I don’t think they work, and when presented with them in my own life, I always choose against the person who made it. For me, it isn’t about issuing ultimatums, but about taking care of my own needs and finding someone who shares my objectives. 

Often, when we have difficult conversations, it’s not about threatening to leave, it’s just to let the other person know that we’re suffering. They might be worth suffering for, but we’re still in pain. It’s been my experience that if I don’t let others know how their actions or words are affecting me, I deprive them of an opportunity to change or make amends. Sometimes, the outcome isn’t good and there is just more pain. But we miss 100% of the shots we don’t take, so making room for tough talks is the only way to deepen intimacy and grow relationships. Doesn’t mean it’s not hard and emotionally exhausting. But if the person is worth it, then it has to be done. 

For me, just like for Kathryn and Oberon, tough talk is necessary to have the relationships I want and need. It’s short term pain for long term gain. It’s about not being motivated by fear and the avoidance of discomfort. It’s how all my favorite characters live their lives and how I strive to live mine. We all just have to find the ones worth suffering for.