Last Saturday, in the space of five hours, I witnessed three unusual events. Three deeply private conversations conducted in public.
The first was in a packed tube carriage. A young couple were engrossed in a heated argument about his (alleged) lack of empathy in the relationship. The girl was upset and angry. He remained mostly silent, and was clearly in a state of excruciating embarrassment.
Later that afternoon I cycled past a middle-aged man and his son who were having a forthright discussion while walking across Clapham common. As I pedalled by, the dad was saying “And why is it that you can’t ever be bothered to pick up the ‘phone to me or your mother?”
Finally, an early evening bus journey brought me within earshot of a young women on the ‘phone to a soon to be ex-partner. She was tearful and distressed. Her parting words before eventually hanging up: “It would have been nice to be kind to each other today. Another ruined evening ahead.”
It was awkward and sad to witness these scenes. I hate for anyone to be in pain. But I was also curious, firstly to have seen so many in one day, and secondly to understand the desire/need/choice to air their conflict in front of others.
January is always break up month. ‘Divorce Day’, as it’s known by lawyers, is the first Monday after New Year’s Day. So maybe what I observed was simply the usual, annual pent-up frustration and anger that couldn’t wait a moment longer.
Perhaps it’s that people are more comfortable nowadays expressing their feelings out loud. Which is generally a good thing. Stiff upper lips don’t always serve us well, after all.
Or is it that lives lived online via a myriad of devices and platforms has normalised public displays of emotion and unhappiness?
We’ve all been witness recently to a very public airing of private family conflict.
All this got me thinking about Dr Steve Peters’ excellent book The Chimp Paradox. He proposes that, to communicate effectively, we need to ensure it happens ‘at the right time; in the right place; with the right people; in the right way and with the right agenda’.
I’ve encouraged my clients to follow this guidance for ‘courageous’ conversations, and it’s worked well for many, particularly where the content might be emotional or challenging, and where conflict might ensue.
Peters prompts us to focus on what our real objectives are, and how to achieve the best outcome for all parties. He compels us to consider whether we are actually venting anger, scoring points or wounding someone rather than changing/improving the situation.
I can think of at least one occasion in my personal life when I followed his advice, recognised that my motive was to punish rather than persuade, and opted to zip it, cool down, and approach the subject at a more appropriate time, with a different agenda and in a more measured tone.
Outcome – more productive.
Maybe you can think of similar examples in your life.
Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, also suggests that one of the ways we ‘get what we want from the world’ is by ‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect’.
A hot topic these days is how to call others out for clumsy/outdated/offensive language or ideas. But is that best done in the heat of the moment, in front of others or later, in private, after reflection and evidence gathering, in person or in writing, or formally via HR? In each unique instance it’s important to ask ourselves what is our true purpose? Is it to guide, educate, challenge or humiliate?
I witnessed a high-profile person say something highly offensive at an event recently, and chose to address it in writing with the head of the organisation. I opted not to raise it publicly on a social media platform. My objective – for the individual to recognise the error and learn to do better. I did not want to damage the organisation. I received a satisfactory response and, for me, that’s enough.
Interesting that Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan now regrets airing her family’s dirty laundry in her 1993 book ‘Family Secrets’. She wishes she had paused her anger to allow for reflection and maturity; to better understand different perspectives.
Wrong time, wrong place and wrong agenda. Outcome – pain, embarrassment and a deeper family rift.
As for the three pairs I encountered on Saturday, I’ll never know how things turned out but I fear four of them might be back on the dating scene. Maybe they would have achieved different outcomes if they’d followed Peters’ and Gladwell’s advice. Or maybe they already had. Perhaps they felt that the Victoria Line, Clapham common and the 49 bus were indeed the right places for a humdinger of an argument.
I only hope that the Clapham young man has called his mum and dad …..