Picture this. You step into the arena for some friendly, after-school banter with your kid, only to find yourself in the Colosseum, facing Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
You: How was school?
You: What did you learn?
You: (Blood pressure rising, voice straining) Can you answer with more than just ONE word?
Gladiator: (Executing a deft eye roll, sarcasm dripping off their sword as they move in for the kill) Yes..............I...Can.
Cue KRAKATOA! Hopefully you manage to keep your cool. After all, you're only human. If you are driving, please don't crash.
What just happened? Weren't you doing all the right things?
- Asking open ended questions?
- Being present and engaged?
- Putting your phone down?
Who hasn't felt the stinging humiliation of the family conversation fail? Let's explore another example you might resemble. I know I do.
FORCE OF NATURE
Crash! Next, the silence before the storm. As you turn towards the commotion the scene comes into focus. Your child's head is tilted back like a Pez dispenser, eyes vacuum-sealed shut, and then a wall of sound hits you like a gale-force wind.
You: (In your most pleasing, but slightly panicked voice) It's okay, it's okay.
You: (Now with a twinge of desperation) It's alright! We can fix it or get you a new one.
Child: WAAAAAAAAA! Sniffle, pause, WAAAAAAAAA! IT...WILL...NEVER...be the SAME!!!
Nothing you say stops the flood. It's like trying to plug Niagara Falls with one-ply toilet paper. Eventually, no thanks to you, things run their course and calm down. You feel totally powerless and ineffective at comforting your own child.
Why are these things happening? You are a caring parent doing your best. Why is it so hard? Perhaps you also suffer similar failures outside your family. Is this your destiny, to be slain and feel ineffectual? How do we fix this?
First, we need to understand what is happening beneath the surface of the conversation iceberg. Surprisingly, word choice has very little to do with the problem and even less to do with the solution. The issue is rooted in a fundamental disconnect.
To help explain this better, I've asked my friend Aaron Skogen to answer a few questions about shifting gears on a bicycle.
So, Aaron, Why do some bicycles have one gear and others have many more?
Bicycles come in many different configurations with gearing often corresponding to the rider's preference or the design function of the bicycle. A road bike for instance, using mine as an example, has a compact crank - 2 front gears, a larger one and a smaller one, and an 11 gear cassette in the rear. This gives me 22 separate gears to work through. The smaller front gear combined with the biggest rear gear will give me the easiest pedal push (essentially the lowest gear), but the least rotation of my tire, per rotation of the pedal. Conversely, if I use the largest front gear, combined with the smallest rear gear, I get the hardest pedal push (the highest gear), but the most rotation of the tire per rotation of the pedal.
Notice how in low gear, Aaron's effort is the least, but it also has the least impact on moving the tire. In the highest gear, the effort is the most and the impact on moving the tire is the greatest.
What are the pros and cons of having one gear vs. having many gears?
That's a great question, and it really comes down to utility. Many gears give you a range to work from, so when you're climbing a big hill in a low gear, its easier to pedal. That same gear on a flat run would require me to pedal at warp speed to move very fast, so I will shift to a higher gear and get more rotation on my tire for each rotation of the pedals.
The cons to this set-up are a few. First they add weight, and second, it requires more routine maintenance and adjustment as the cables wear, etc. Finally they tend to put a bit more stress on the chain.
On the other hand, a single gear, one that gets you to moderate speeds, yet is still relatively easy, is often found on commuter or courier bikes. At a basic level many couriers look for the simplest set-up they can to eliminate the maintenance, adjustment and potential failure of one of the shifting components. So they may set themselves up with a simple gearing ratio that suits the needs of their specific riding style.
Using multiple gears allows you to adapt better, but is more complicated. It's less of a headache to use fewer gears or limit yourself to gears that work best for you, but your ability to adapt is reduced.
What is the benefit of picking the right gear?
I touched on this a bit earlier. Picking the right gear helps reduce fatigue. I tend to ride long rides trying to keep a steady cadence. The cadence is the RPM (Rotations Per Minute) that I pedal at. For me, keeping a cadence around 95 RPM keeps my body from fatiguing. For instance, I can climb a large hill, in a low gear at 95 RPM and only be moving forward at around 10 miles per hour, yet that same cadence at a higher gear will allow me to cruise at 25-28 mph on a flat road.
When the gear you pick for a given terrain matches your cadence, pedaling is smooth and easy.
What sort of things do you need to consider or beware of when you are going to change gears?
Ultimately its about anticipating the need to shift. For instance, I am rolling along and see a large hill coming up, as I begin the climb, I watch my RPM, and as it begins to fall, I ease the pressure on my pedals and downshift. From there I am back to my 95 RPM until I need to downshift again.
Like with many things, anticipating and making a change earlier makes things go better.
What happens if you jump from one gear to another that is really different or far away from the original?
Skipping many gears at once can really throw you off your cadence. I've seen people get so disrupted by a big mis-shift that they have almost lost control of the bike. Imagine pedaling at 95 RPM in a high gear, suddenly you mis-shift to your lowest gear and you physically cannot keep up with the pedals. You are essentially freewheeling because you would need to be pedaling at nearly three times the RPM to keep the gear engaged. Make sense?
Gradual change is easier to adjust to than abrupt change.
What is cross-chaining and why should it be avoided?
I think in this case a picture is worth a thousand words. Cross chaining is running your chain from the largest ring on the crank to the largest on the cassette, or vice versa. As you can see by the image, it creates extreme angles to your chain, and accelerates the wear of both the chain and the sprockets.
Like stress on a bike chain, stress on a relationship wears it down more.
"Joe, can you fast forward to the part about how to survive these painful conversations? I'm trying to get to better communication, not win the Tour de France!"
Apologies for the wait and thank you for riding this far. The last stage is coming. But first, a caveat. What follows are not magic words or a list of 5 best tips. Instead, an uphill battle lies ahead. Feel free to exit now. I won't judge. If you want to go on, don your armor and let's charge ahead!
The secret to having a successful conversation is matching the energy of the other person.
"Seriously? I'm underwhelmed. What's so difficult about that?"
I can see why you would say that. Allow me to explain.
Think of your energy as your current gear. The other person's energy is the terrain you are approaching. When your gear matches them, the conversation ride flows easily. However, if their energy requires you to be in a totally different gear, you need to shift gears before you can get in sync and communicate effectively. To do this, follow these 4 steps.
Step 1. Be aware of the other person's energy (Identify what gear is needed)
Before you engage, take a moment to observe your counterpart carefully. Do they seem happy or sad? Open or closed? Tired or energized?
Step 2. Resist the urge to disregard the other person's energy and charge ahead. (Don't pedal on when your current gear doesn't match the terrain)
The energy you bring to the conversation is like your current gear. Merely identifying the other person's energy is not enough. You must resist the urge to just plow ahead in your current gear. This is challenging because it takes little to no effort for you to stay in the same gear. Resisting this tendency requires a surprising amount of self-control.
Step 3. Move yourself to where they are or wait until they move to where you are. (Smoothly upshift or downshift and pedal on)
This step requires extreme patience. The idea is to work on getting your gears, or in other words, energy levels in sync before diving into the real conversation. You will know you are in sync based on the other person's response to you. It's palpable and you can feel the connection click like a bike chain engages when everything works properly.
The good news is you can do this without any specialized training or an advanced degree in psychology. The bad news is this requires a fair amount of awareness, self-control and patience.
Step 4. Move in tandem and have a real conversation.
Once you are connected as a result of executing Steps 1-3, the conversation begins to open up and it is possible, with a minimum of resistance, to get your counterpart to move with you easily. Now shift up or down, a little bit at a time until you hit your stride and have an enjoyable, flowing conversation.
"This sounds like a lot of theory. What does this look like in practice?"
So glad you asked. Back to the Colosseum!
gladiator, round 2
As you enter the arena you notice that Maximus does not appear talkative. It's as if everyone and everything he has ever cared about has been brutally ripped away. He looks at you like competitive eating champion Kobayashi looks at a hotdog.
You make a measured, cautious approach. No sudden movements, please!
You: (In a quiet, low tone) Hey...
You: How are feeling today?
Gladiator: (Listlessly) Okay...I...guess.
You: (Matching his volume, speed, and energy) What...do...you...
feel like...for dinner today?
Gladiator: (Lowering shield just a bit, almost imperceptibly) I wouldn't mind...some hotdogs.
You: (Still circling cautiously) I could do hotdogs, too. (Thoughtful pause) Remember that time...we ordered hotdogs and got free buffalo wings? We thought we were so lucky...until the next morning when we really "paid" for them?
Gladiator: (Helmet comes off. Is that your imagination or did you catch a glimpse of a reluctant smile?) Yeah, who can forget the "ring of fire?"
You: (With just a bit more energy) Well, hotdogs it is, then. How was school?
Gladiator: Not bad.
You: Did you learn anything that could help prevent us from having another ring of fire incident?
Gladiator: (Laughing out loud, despite themselves) Ha-ha, not really, but we did learn about the dangers Gold Rush miners faced.
You: (Picking up the pace) What sort of dangers? Was it from explosives? Robbers?
Gladiator: (Matching you now, blow for blow) You won't believe it! Back then...
What just happened? What made the difference?
First, you didn't foolishly charge headlong into the conversation only to be mercilessly cut down. Next, you deftly matched Maximus' energy with your words, tone, pacing, etc. You stayed patiently in the danger zone until you could see their guard start to drop. Finally, you gradually shifted to a more engaged conversation and much to your surprise, Maximus came along. In the end, you got a thumbs up and lived to parent another day!
This works in the opposite direction, too. When emotions are running high, sometimes you need to let the other person burn off their excess energy.
Sadness and anger are emotions and though it may not seem so in the heat of the moment, they fade naturally.
I'm not advocating ignoring or doing nothing. However, simply sitting there quietly and supportively without trying to "help" can give the person the space and time they need to feel a little better. Then, they can more easily meet you where you are.
When the moment is a charged one, not doing something can require more discipline than doing something. Consider the commands Maximus shouts in the opening battle of Gladiator.
"Hold the line! Stay with me!"
"Me" meaning the part of yourself that is calm and under control. In spite of strong emotions flying at you from every which direction, you must learn to regulate your own emotional response and avoid getting pulled into what Helen Riess calls, "affective quicksand."
"COME ON, Joe! This sounds like a LOT of effort! I'm not even sure it will work. And why is it MY responsibility to match the other person? Shouldn't they be matching me sometimes?"
I hear you. I do. It's normal to be bothered by having to do this much work JUST to have a decent conversation. And I get that it feels unfair that you are the one having to adjust for others moods.
In truth, you don't have to do any of this. You can continue to ride on and use just one gear. That will work fine for lots of situations. However, consider that the ability to change gears smoothly results in the best conversations, in the most scenarios, with the least amount of stress on the relationship chain. And just between you and me, as you try this out, you may be surprised to notice that others are already doing this FOR YOU from time to time. And maybe THEY feel it is unfair that they have to match YOUR moods. If you catch your reflection off their shield you may be surprised to see you are Maximus. And not in the noble, self-sacrificing "I'm Spartacus!" kind of way.
A final nod to Gladiator.
Remember parents, what we do in life echoes in eternity...
Thanks for riding along! If you have any comments or experiences to share about dealing with difficult conversations, I would love to hear from you.