Avoidance is our number one strategy when faced with a difficult conversation so it’s a common occurrence to be faced with someone else trying to avoid talking with us!
Let’s picture the scene. Here you are, all revved up to have your “conversation.” Maybe you’ve done your work to prepare for it. You’ve prepared every which way to Sunday. You’ve talked about it in your head. Perhaps you’ve run over some possible scenarios with others.
What counts is you are ready!
You put out the invitation and a few things that can happen that you don’t want to happen:
1) The other person say “Yes” and then doesn’t show up.
2) The other says “Sure I’ll meet” but then cancels at the last minute.
3) The other says “Okay – when I have time” but is always too busy and doesn’t initiate.
What’s going on and how can this change?
Firstly, what’s going on. To give you a blanket statement for such complex creatures as humans, will be impossible. What I’m about to say might not be going on. And, if you are willing, play with this possibility for a moment.
None of us really do things we don’t want to do, at least not consciously. Just like other mammals, and even little cells in petri dishes, we move away from perceived threat.
So, if you accept that, it is your insight and little opening. The other person is avoiding you because they perceive you, or something about the possibility of meeting with you, as a threat.
That insight provides an opening that leads to a few useful questions:
“What can I do to lessen the threat?”
“What’s in it for them to meet with me?”
These questions, although universal, can also provide you with some useful directions. I’ll give you three to entertain:
1) What’s the Benefit?
Sometimes you can frame the invitation (or re-invitation), by letting people know what’s in it for them. I’ll illustrate what I mean by way of a story.
I was coaching someone in a role play for a conflict resolution class once. The woman was role playing with someone who was pretending to be her grown up daughter. They were simulating a conversation the older woman wanted to have with her “real” daughter in “real life.” The conversation was supposed to be about how the mother was financially supporting her daughter.
The mother asked for the conversation with her “fake” daughter this way:
“I want to talk with you about cutting you off from your financial handouts you get from me.”
Because we had the luxury of it being a role play, we could stop right after that to ask the “fake” daughter: “How did that land for you? What was the impact for you of hearing that as the topic to talk about?”
Fake daughter: “Um. That didn’t work for me at all! This is NOT a conversation I want to have with this mother – at any cost.”
Believe it or not, this came as a surprise to the “real” mother! Perhaps it seems obvious to you, but sometimes when we are in it, it’s not obvious to us. The mother was stuck only seeing the topic from her own point of view. Just like if we are standing looking at a bitten apple, if we are standing on its smooth, unbitten side, that is all we see.
We reflected on how the mother might frame the topic in such a way that there could be “something in it” for the daughter. With the “fake” daughter’s input, mine, the mother’s and the other two students observing in the class, we came up with a new frame. This time, the mother said she wanted to talk about how she could support the daughter in her growing independence. The “fake daughter” was more open to this frame and that enabled them to come to the table to at least start the conversation.
You could say this is manipulation. And, it is only manipulation if you are attached to a particular outcome. Finding something that is in it for both of you is what a values-based conversation is about. It starts with finding something to talk about that could be a “north star” for both of you, not just one of you!
2) What’s the Risk?
Sometimes what motivates people to come to the table is knowing what the risk is if they don’t come to the table. This conversational move is much riskier than sharing a benefit, but can be part of one’s repertoire. What are you afraid of if you don’t have the conversation? And, more importantly, what might the other person be afraid of? Spending some time thinking about these questions can help you, even if you don’t share what you’ve come up with.
In some hierarchical organizations, this idea of risk is used to good effect when an officer, for example, ranked lower than their boss, can point out some possible risk if they are not given the authority to speak in that situation: “Respectfully, sir, there seems to be an issue it would benefit you to know about and that’s the reason why I’d like to request a time to talk…”
3) What Can I Both Acknowledge and Assert?
Sometimes people need space. The person might be feeling pressure to meet with you, and of course, that’s a turn off. No one wants to be forced to do something.
Yet, there may be a need to meet from your point of view. So, in that circumstance, you want to let the other person know you want to meet and you want it to be when they are ready too. Acknowledge and assert.
This starts with connection. You want to acknowledge that they may be busy or not quite ready to have a focused conversation with you and you want to respect their need for space.
And, once there is connection, that they feel you understand where they are coming from, what can you assert? Can you share that that you want to get to the root of the problem, and close enough to when it happened for it to meaningful? Can you share that if you don’t meet, you don’t get the opportunity to solve the problem together and get to the real root of the problem? You won’t be able to truly get what’s going on for them so you can fix or change whatever they’d like you to and they won’t have a chance to hear from you, so that you can work out something that works for both of you.
Acknowledge, assert, then acknowledge again. Let them know you want to give them time to think about what you talked about and to get back to you when they are ready.
In this way, you are telling them you want to respect that they may be busy and need time and you are also saying waiting may cause you both to miss the chance to resolve this in a good way. And you give them choice.
Let me know how it goes!