Having a difficult conversation is humbling. No one likes being judged, and speaking to a friend or partner about difficult feelings is challenging. So we sat down with Arthur Janov, professor of communication at Ohio State University, and Andrew Gold, a psychologist at Yale University, to learn how to learn difficult things.
What we can learn from an impossible conversation
Janov says that starting a conversation with a disappointing outcome is quite common. Even if the learning happens afterward, if the event took an unbearable toll on you, the ending may never feel satisfying.
"It is very common for people to sit down with the person who left them or apologized to them, and have a conversation afterward. In that way, the transition from awful to good still has some meaning," says Janov. "The problem is, that's not how we want to deal with these things in the real world. We don't know how to have a conversation afterward. So that conversation becomes a strange conversation. There is a certain time where one says, 'I don't think you know what you said was hurtful, because you are the one who has to do it. You are the one who has to do it.' And then we let it go."
Understanding that difficult conversations give us a unique opportunity for learning
Gold says that learning from uncomfortable situations usually happens if the participants break the ice with openness. "It is not very interesting if there is no interaction at all and then we can look at the statistics afterward," he says. "The thinking process is, 'I am still learning something about how you think about relationships. And this is more interesting.' It's surprising to see that the second half of the conversation is more interesting because it's been done before. We say something completely different when we meet someone for the first time, and the way we translate that is quite different. It looks the same, but if you watch the videotape, you can tell that I'm talking to them in a completely different way."
Getting angry over not learning difficult things
For the students who spoke with the class, opening up to difficult people is worth the efforts.
"It's easier to address issues of disappointment about someone who committed an unforgivable offense than about a valued companion that has changed, even without causing major damage," says Janov. "So it is easier to invest emotionally in the latter that does not bring with it the complications of recent memory."
Janov adds that we all know that we will make mistakes. But the harder task is learning from those mistakes. "There's a value in learning from your mistakes, by being curious about them and talking about them, and thinking about what you should have done differently. So the worst is a failure, and the best is a learning experience," he says.