When you’re sure about something, communication tends to be easy.
You may say things like:
>> “Yes, I’d love to come to your show on Friday night.”
>> “No, sorry, can’t make it. I’ve already got plans.”
>> “Sure, I’d love to be a speaker at your event. I’m thrilled you asked.”
It’s when you’re not sure that things tend to break down.
For example, I was recently asked by a friend to help plan a portion of her birthday weekend that required quite a bit of research and details.
The truth was, I didn’t want to do it. I plan and execute a lot of things in my life and I didn’t feel inspired to do additional things. At the same time, I wanted to make sure she was taken care of. I knew she was asking because she didn’t want to have to do everything herself, and I wanted her to get her needs met. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be the one to meet them.
This conflict caused me to delay responding. This was problematic for two reasons: first, I went about my day with an uncomfortable niggling sensation in my stomach, knowing that this “thing” was pending. I couldn’t quite relax and couldn’t shake it off. Second, with every hour that passed, I knew she was waiting to hear back as there was some sort of time-urgency around this issue.
In cases like these, many of us assume that in order to say anything, we’ve got to have it all worked out. We think we’ve got to know the answer in order to reply in any way.
To help myself work through this situation, I used a technique I’ve come back to repeatedly, which is asking myself, “What would I want if I were the other person?” If I’d asked a friend for something and they were feeling unsure about it, what would I want them to do?
In short, I’d want them to tell me for two main reasons: one, so that I’d at least know what was going on, and two, because I wouldn’t want my friend to suffer while trying to work it out all alone.
So I responded to the text with a voice note.
Let’s pause here briefly because it’s important…I chose not to text her back, but to use my voice.
Why? Because texting has a lot of flaws. It’s inherently stressful to communicate asynchronously, which means you have to send something out into the void and have to wait for a response.
For those of us with anxious attachment or anxious/avoidant attachment, it can be extra painful to be waiting around for a reply. We start to second-guess ourselves or make up stories upon stories about why the person isn’t responding. Did I come off as too thirsty? Overeager? Are they just busy? Do they not like me anymore?
Add to that stress the uncertainty around tone, and you get a big ole mess. For example, one of my housemates tends to use punctuation, and if I didn’t know him better, it’d freak me out. In response to a text about whether he’s coming to dinner, he’ll text by saying, “No,” which if I didn’t know he doesn’t mean anything by, it would sound to me like he’s pissed off about something. “Oh sh*t,” I’d think. Did I do something to upset him? That’s a serious “no.”
Now, in addition to the asynchronous nature of texting, tone of voice is a critical element of communication and it’s lost with texting. When you use your voice, you can convey vulnerability, you can express care, and you can laugh a little bit, which can make the moment lighter. You can say more with a lot less, and you can do it in a way that feels more human.
As a sex and relationship coach, this advice always comes in handy: when you’re dealing with some kind of emotional content, I humbly suggest using a voice note instead of a written text. It feels more personal and gives the person a whole hell of a lot more information with respect to your tone, phrasing, and care. You transmit a lot with your voice that you can’t with impersonal, disconnected words on a screen.
Now, in terms of what to actually say, here’s the three-word phrase you can use in situations where you feel conflicted:
I feel conflicted.
Yep, you can just state it. Sometimes in our coaching work, we call this, “sharing your self-talk.” I find this particularly useful in situations like the one with my friend, where I wasn’t sure how exactly to respond. In my case, I said something like:
“Hey, Tanya, got your text. Sorry to hear about the legal stuff you’re going through. Wanted to share that I’m feeling conflicted about the planning thing you asked me about. On the one hand, I really want you to get what you want and I can see how this would be awesome for that. On the other, I’m concerned that if I do this, I’ll feel resentful. I’ve been planning and executing quite a bit in my life and feel resistant to doing more of that right now. I’m really not sure what to do because I care about you and want this weekend to be awesome, and I also don’t want to show up feeling resentful.”
Now, for me, this was edgy to send. I wasn’t sure how she would respond and, like many of my clients and people I know, my nervous system is wired to expect people to blow up at me if I share anything other than exactly what they wanted to hear. At the same time, I’ve reached the point in my life where I want to know whether the people around me can handle my truth. I’m committed to not walking on eggshells with friends, dating partners, managers, or colleagues. And one easy way to test whether someone can meet you is to let them know you’re conflicted, and then see what happens.
In this case, my friend has voice-messaged me back and said she understood. She also shared her own conflict around the situation (wanting support and not sure how to get it). She then clarified more about what the task was, and it turned out the scope of it was a lot less than what I was imagining. I felt more comfortable once I knew what it entailed and chose to move forward.
But let me tell you, I felt a lot more expressed having been honest about my conflict. I also felt more expressed having named the root cause of my anxiety around taking on the task, which was that I’d only be doing it out of a sense of obligation and not out of love, and, therefore, ran the risk of showing up to the event while feeling resentful.
The phrase “I’m feeling conflicted,” or “I feel conflicted,” can be powerful in dating contexts as well. For example, say you’re in a committed relationship where you’re not yet living together and one person invites the other to hang out on Friday night. An example of this communication could be:
[Voice note]: “Hey babe, thanks for thinking of me for Friday. I’m feeling kinda conflicted about this because on the one hand, I always love spending time with you. On the other, I’m feeling like I need a night to myself to recharge and feel centered and balanced. How do you feel about hanging out on Sunday instead?”
Again, this is edgy but necessary. In my work as a sex and relationship coach, I can tell you that becoming masterful in when to say “no” is foundational to having a healthy relationship. And “I’m feeling conflicted” can help you feel more fully expressed.
Because many times, the truth is, in order to get our friend’s or partner’s needs meet or to take care of ourselves, we can’t be the ones to meet their needs right now.