Why is it so challenging to have difficult, emotionally fraught conversations?

Over the past few months, this question has been circling around in my mind, bouncing between what I hear in the news, on my social media feeds, and group chats with those I know and love. 

It’s emotionally draining when something is off with another person or conversations are cut short due to miscommunication and misunderstanding. My empathetic, easily anxious brain goes into hyperdrive, recounting past conversations and guessing aimlessly what I would have done to upset them. Once the emotional wave passes and my surprisingly logical side kicks in, I see if we can connect in-person to iron out what might have wrinkled the last time we talked. 

Face to face conversations. Sigh… remember what those are? It’s easier to not be distracted, to look someone directly in the eye, and be a soft place for misunderstandings to land. To get things out in the open can be beyond challenging, but ultimately worthwhile. These discussions take patience and, at times, an extraordinary amount of grace and deep breaths. Tough conversations are never easy, but clearness is kindness, and it’s easier to listen – truly take in all of the nuances – if you’re in person.

I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to FaceTime all of my friends and family. I have no idea how we’d be able to survive the pandemic without at least seeing each other smile on a video screen. And yet, I despise technology because it means I can’t truly see their reactions fully beyond the size of an iPad screen. I can’t hug them. I can’t reach out, touch their hand with small, simple gestures that tell them “I see you, I hear you,” and “we’re in this together.” 

Technology doesn’t allow me to do what I do best: embody the intangible, unspoken safe space in the midst of chaos. I’m a convener. I thrive in bringing different viewpoints and ideas together in one conversation. I crave that close connection with deep conversation, and it’s the one thing we can’t have right now when we need it most: the U.S. Presidential election.

My favorite and most stressful topic to broach is politics. I caught the bug when I lived in Washington, D.C., watching how decisions were made and feeling like there was a better way to find common ground. Once a political wonk, always a political wonk – isn’t that how the saying goes? It also refined the policy views and considerations I hold and fervently question when approaching each election. That shift has often (not always) been met with more judgments than questions to understand more. 

Let’s face it: the family Thanksgiving meal after any election season is often fraught with the unspoken “mmmhms” after an uncle says something that’s a little off or you mention that you vote for a progressive candidate or issue and the room hushes. The New York Times has covered it at length, and no doubt Saturday Night Live will mock us with a sketch (or resurrect one of their classics).

Tensions are high as we sit squarely in a sacred moment that comes around every four years. We’re inundated with talking points, pundits, and false information masquerading as fact. We’re pulled one way or another based on how we grew up, our beliefs, and our experiences.  With COVID-19 rebuttals on a loop and a deeper examination of race relations in our country, it’s no wonder that 25% of Generation X and 34% of millennials are undoubtedly anxious to broach politics when eating turkey.  

Our nation’s democracy was built to come together and debate civilly. Notice that the word “fight” isn’t anywhere in that last sentence? Discussing complex and complicated issues at length takes courage and an open mind. It means we need to take some of the emotions and take a breath before we say what’s on our mind. Think critically about the information we take in, and check ourselves that we treat each other with respect, and talk to others that come from very different points of view. 

It means we need to take a fucking breath before we move forward.

When we don’t, our conversations turn to “us versus them” and vitriol, judgment, and blame. No surprise there – I’m guilty of sliding into a fight instead of a debate. It makes me incredibly sad when something so foundational to our country makes it so that parents and kids can’t have conversations beyond safe topics like the weather and sports from July to November every four years. 

I believe America is a great nation, but it is only as strong as how well individuals come together to discuss a way forward – for all.

That means not taking anything you hear on TV or social media at face value by asking the questions “what does this mean?” And “who benefits from me believing this as truth?” We take a deep breath, sit down across the table, and ask questions. 

I feel like a broken record now, but it means we have to do one thing really well – Listen. And we must not wait until every presidential election to have these conversations. These tough conversations take practice, and we can leverage the remaining three years to have them instead of cramming them in a six-month window. 

The tissue-thin line between tough conversations is showing the ugliest and most disconnected side of our nation at the moment. We can do better. We deserve better for each other, and it starts with those we love. 

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