The myth of Odysseus, as told by Homer in the epic poem The Odyssey, is no slouch when it comes to potent visual imagery. Although I read this classic work in high school, few metaphors have come in as handy for my work as a therapist, parent, and partner as that of the treacherous seaborne route past the island of the Sirens.
I kneaded [some] wax in my strong hands till it became soft…. Then I stopped the ears of all my men, and they bound my hands and feet to the mast as I stood upright on the crosspiece; but they went on rowing themselves. When we had got within earshot of the land…the Sirens saw [us] and began with their singing.
“Come here,” they sang, “…and listen to our…voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song, and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we…can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.”
…I longed to hear them further [and] I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and…bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens’ voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me.
Odysseus plugs his crew’s ears and has them strap him to the mast so they can sail past the Sirens’ island safely, as anyone who hears their captivating song will invariably steer their ship toward the rocky shore, and certain death. I think about this story often, especially when I’m having a difficult conversation.
You know you’re having a difficult conversation when you want to scream or punch someone (fight), run away (flee), or hide (freeze). In other words, the survival-oriented branch of your nervous system starts working perfectly. Unfortunately for you, however, your sympathetic nervous system does not know that you’re not in any real danger at that moment, so in addition to having to navigate a difficult conversation, you also have to manage a survival response better suited to escaping an encounter with a saber tooth tiger than engaging with an outraged, frustrated, or hurt human being. It would seem as though our evolution has not yet caught up with us in this regard, but that’s a story for another day. Right now we’ve got a difficult conversation to get through, and a metaphor to explain.
So what does Odysseus’s unique approach to helmsmanship have to do with difficult conversations? Well, when intense feelings abound and are calling at us, daring us to steer toward the rocks, the first thing we must do is…
1. Hold on tight!
Your furious partner just accused you of being insensitive. Your tantrumming child just said she doesn’t like you. Your office mate just chewed you out.
You can feel your insides slipping towards the rocks. You know the sensation – it’s different for each body, but it’s likely some combination of prickling, heat, tingling, and clenching in your gut, limbs, and face. Unlike Odysseus, you don’t have a crew to bind you tightly to the mast, so you’ve got to do it yourself if you don’t want to go careening toward that deadly shore. Believe me, nothing good can be found there.
Sure, the Sirens promise fortune and wisdom, and who, in a moment of sheer moment of sheer outrage and panic, hasn’t fantasized about “letting everyone have it,” to which everyone begins a slow clap that erupts into a thunderous standing ovation of moral righteousness. I know I’ve played that movie in my head many a time, but, sadly, it never works out the same way in real life.
So how do we hold on without the benefit of a crew and a sturdy oak mast? Well, we’ve got to improvise with what we have. Visualization comes in handy here – picture yourself giving your insides a big hug. Heck, hug your whole self, in your imagination or for real. Slow down your breathing. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth; make your exhale longer than your inhale. Take at least three breaths like this. Tighten and relax your major muscle groups. While you’re doing all of this, you’re telling your brain that you’re safe and don’t need to be in survival mode, which helps you to be able to think more clearly. Also, by now, you’ll hopefully be prepared to do step #2.
First, be quiet. Seriously, don’t say anything. You’ll want to retaliate, justify, defend, attack, name-call, threaten, or worse.
Once there’s an opening in the conversation, however, you could acknowledge that you want to do those things, which is fair. “I’m feeling really threatened and want to defend myself right now.” Just don’t go on to then defend yourself. The Gottman Institute recently posted an excellent article on how to listen without getting defensive – check it out for some great ideas on how to listen impartially and non-defensively.
Listen. Simply and powerfully. Try to really understand what the speaker is wanting, needing, and feeling, and what unmet need is prompting their upset. You’ll have time for your agenda later.
Shutting up and listening is probably the most challenging – and most important – part of a difficult conversation. When I first began working as a psychotherapist, I used to place an analog clock just behind my client at eye level, so a quick glance could show me the agonizing seconds as they passed. When you’re listening, time seems to slow down, and when you’re waiting in silence, it slows down even further. Challenge yourself to let the seconds pass as you listen and know that it’s going to feel like an awfully long time. If you can last 10 seconds during today’s difficult conversation, great. See if you can last 12 seconds tomorrow. And so on.
3. Say what you heard
Nope, still not time for your agenda! We have to listen first. And BE KIND (more great tips from the Gottman Institute on how to be kind when you are mad at your partner can be found here). This is essentially the same protocol for when we are using our two hands (to hold both empathy and limits); nobody is going to hear our agenda unless they know you get their point of view.
This part might be hard, as you’ll be opening your mouth not to speak to your own point of view, but to honor the other person’s. Try to frame your recap from the point of view of wants, needs, and feelings, as with Nonviolent Communication; it will keep things neutral and relatively empathic. Speaking to your partner’s perspective may feel like a bitter, pride-swallowing move, and I suppose we do have to put our pride on the back burner in this moment in order to keep steering away from the rocks. As with poor Odysseus, who demands to be set free to hear the calling Sirens, your resolve will undoubtedly need some reinforcements at this point. So keep holding on to yourself while you do this – use your imagery and keep breathing.
Check in to make sure you got it right. Ask the other person, “Is that right?” or “Am I hearing you?” And keep trying until you get it right.
4. Ask the other person to repeat what you said
Now, you get to state your case, but again, stay away from those rocks! Speak to your unmet needs and wants, as well as the emergent feelings. Ask your partner to repeat what you said, and keep trying until you get it right.
5. Repeat 3 and 4 as needed
As you continue to unwind the rupture, more wants, needs, and feelings will likely emerge and need to be spoken to. Continue to reflect your partner’s position and invite repetition of your own position until you both feel heard regarding the specific rupture in question.
CAUTION: Don’t go into the past! A key element of braving a difficult conversation is navigating only the conversation you’re having at that moment, and not dredging up other unfinished business (as tempting as the Sirens on that island might be). Be like Odysseus here; tackle one treacherous obstacle at a time. It’s already hard enough.
6. Invite repair
Ruptures are a part of all normal human relationships. Repairing them is key to well-being, and communicates to one another (and especially children) that big feelings and conflict are survivable. The rupture/repair cycle has the potential to strengthen and deepen relationships, as well as to heal wounds from past relationships where repair was not possible.
If you’ve done steps 1-5, you’re already well on your way to a repair, as simply not steering into the rocks accomplishes a lot toward not having as much to repair once the difficult conversation is winding down. At this point, face your partner squarely and look them in the eye. You can…
- Ask your partner if things feel repaired; use your gut barometer to detect any lingering feelings that need to be expressed.
- Apologize for anything you may have said or done that you wish you hadn’t or that you know hurt the other person.
- Ask if you can do anything for them in that moment.
- Offer your support.
- Ask if the other person feels complete with the conversation.
Above all, hold on tight and keep holding on.
Look, it’s hard to be a human being with a nervous system whose operating system hasn’t been updated in several millennia. It’s also really hard to be in relationships (don’t take my word for it, listen to renowned couples therapist Dr. Stan Tatkin). And there are lots of Sirens out there – they sound even better than ever (after all, Homer knew nothing of AutoTune or audio engineering). You can’t go a single day without hearing their song. So hold on tight, fellow humans; your safe arrival at your destination depends upon it.