I sat with rapt attention, listening as the person across from me told me all the things I had done to hurt her, all the reasons she didn’t trust me, the reasons our relationship – for all practical purposes – had ended. Badly, I might add.
She was a former colleague, someone who a dozen years ago had been a trusted friend. And then she wasn’t – for reasons that were unknown to me. But, there were definitely reasons.
I squirmed in my seat as she illuminated for me why we hadn’t spoken for all those years. It was one of the most intensely honest, open, and enlightening conversations I’ve ever had. Let me add: painful. The bottom line is, there are always two sides to every story — if we are willing to listen.
All too often, both in our personal and business lives, we avoid the difficult conversations. All of us have done this at some point in life. Or we continue to do it, many times over. Maybe we’re afraid of how we’ll be received, or maybe we’re even more worried about what we may hear in return. Yet in the end, we all know that ignoring the problem until it goes away is never the right answer.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
But I knew it was time to stop avoiding this very difficult conversation. As you know by now, if you’ve been reading my blog or receiving my newsletters for any length of time, I tend to be very open and honest in my written communication. Today is no different.
We saw each other at a mutual friend’s party — the first time in 12 years that we were together. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted for a bit. And inside, my heart was burning. I realized how much I had missed her, and that in my mind the end of our friendship had nothing to do with my getting laid off, and everything to do with something else altogether.
So how did we get here? Let’s “Tarantino” it; let’s go back to where it started.
Our kids grew up together in their early years, attending the same daycare, and we had the kind of working relationship that was open and honest, and we were a very effective team. At least, that was my story. Somewhere along the way, that relationship was forever transformed. And it wasn’t for the reasons that I thought.
“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg
My story had been that she had betrayed me. Near the end of our working relationship, she had transferred to another department within the company, and the wheels came off our friendship. Not only were we not speaking as we had in the past, but I felt as though she was actively undermining me with our colleagues. I was hurt, frustrated, and angry. And I certainly wasn’t paying attention to her feelings.
As we talked at the party, I invited her to meet me for lunch, ostensibly to reconnect. But I also had another agenda. I wanted to clear the air and understand what had happened that caused us to lose this wonderful and enriching friendship so many years earlier. Do you know that saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” I was about to get a very real insight into that one.
As we sat down to lunch, we caught up on all the easy stuff. How are the kids? What’s new in your work life? And then I asked the pressing, uncomfortable question: “What happened that caused us to drift apart all those years ago?” And she answered, in detail. Vivid, unfiltered detail. Remember the “two sides to every story” assertion above? That was about to rear its ugly head.
I tried my best not to cringe in disbelief at the picture she painted of what a self-absorbed, unhappy, and ineffective leader (and friend) I had been. And as I listened, I knew she was right. I think on some level, that’s actually the worst part of it all. She was absolutely right. I had betrayed her. I didn’t listen when she needed me. I was too caught up in my own struggles and fears to recognize that I wasn’t the only one suffering. I couldn’t see past my own problems long enough to see that she needed me. And I wasn’t there.
As I sat there and absorbed body blow after body blow, inside I knew I had to do something to make it right. I can’t change the past. But what I did in that moment would determine whether or not this friendship would have a future. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I apologized.
“Communication - the human connection - is the key to personal and career success.” – Paul J. Meyer
She was more gracious than I could have imagined. She told me, “I forgave you a long time ago. I knew you were struggling back then. I just couldn’t deal with the fact that you weren’t there to help me when I felt I needed it. You didn’t listen. You promised you would help, and you never did.”
We talked for a long time – close to two hours. We discussed all that had happened, and all that we have done since then. And it was one of the most healing conversations I’ve ever had. We not only cleared the air, but we mended a friendship that at one time we had both treasured. Now we have the opportunity to treasure it again.
As we finished lunch and made a promise to get together again, she looked at me and said, “You know, I never would have imagined it possible, but you are nowhere near the person you were back then. You’ve changed so much. I’m really proud of you.” And as her words washed over me, the only thought I could muster was, “Thank God for that!”
If you’re avoiding a difficult conversation, it’s time to meet it head on. Maybe it’s someone at work that you’ve lost touch with; maybe it’s someone in your personal life – a long lost friend or family member you haven’t spoken with. Regardless, take the time to reach out. That’s what real leaders do. Leaders face the truth, and they’re willing to LISTEN to what is being said.
The art of communication is the language of leadership.” – James Humes
You never know what might happen. You just might find a long lost friend like I did. And even if you don’t, even if it turns out that there’s no going back, it’s better than spending the rest of your life wondering, “What if?”
The lessons from these difficult conversations can transform us — personally and/or professionally. This conversation, despite the squirming and discomfort, allowed me to reconcile lessons from a dozen years prior. On many levels, it freed me from the confines of a past that was characterized by miscommunication and misunderstanding. And it redirected me down a path I never imagined — one in which an old friendship is renewed and a relationship, healed.
So screw avoidance: I’m tackling the difficult conversations with an open mind and heart. And I challenge you to do the same.
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Kevin Ciccotti, Human Factor Formula
Helping companies create sustainable, effective teams that are committed to the success of their projects, the organization, and the individuals with whom they work