You’re sitting in a room. Perhaps with just another person, perhaps as part of a larger group. You’re feeling a knot in your stomach, a queasiness that will not go away. No one is talking because no one wants to be the one to break the heavy silence. You’re focusing on the patterns on the carpet or the little piece of grass that’s stuck to your shoelaces. Every ounce of your being is telling you to leave, to make a joke or to say something, anything. But instead, you sit there, in complete silence.
Then someone starts talking. Maybe it’s you or maybe someone else. And suddenly, everyone’s tongues come undone. Words start to flow, awkwardly at first, timidly, but with growing confidence. Initially you’re treading in territory that is safe, justifying every sentence, apologizing every step of the way. Eventually though, the emotions get the better of you. People are more bold, more honest and more vocal. Perhaps someone is crying or maybe someone’s voice gets a little too loud. The silence has been broken. The threshold has been crossed. The gloves are off.
I’m sure this kind of setting is familiar to everyone. I’m certain you’ve found yourself in this situation before, probably more than once. And, more likely than not, there’s at least one thing that’s consistent across your various experiences: You probably hated having every one of those conversations and, as such, you do everything in your power to avoid having to have them again.
No one likes to hurt the people they love, and very few people like to voice the unpopular opinion. We are, by nature, social beings. As such, we have a profound need to belong.
Especially at Yale, I find that these conversations are incredibly few and far between. Yale prides itself in being a community above all else, a place where people get along, listen to and understand each other. Emotionally draining and challenging conversations hardly fit into that schema, and so we rarely have them. We try to be patient, to be understanding, to brush things off and to just get along.
But if you have ever found yourself in a room like this, experiencing the dread that comes along with hearing the first word, you also probably know the feeling of relief that follows these admittedly uncomfortable conversations. Once you get caught up in the heat of the moment, you start voicing things you would have never expressed otherwise. Maybe it’s because someone pushed your buttons just right, maybe it’s because you’re feeling inspired by others’ honesty, or maybe it’s just because you’ve reached your personal breaking point.
The conversation might not always go your way. The result may not always be what you hoped for it to be. Perhaps you went a little too far, or you did not go far enough. Perhaps you heard some things you were not ready to hear. Perhaps it confirmed a hunch you had had all along, but were trying to deny until that moment. Regardless, there are few things that feel more liberating than being able to vocalize and put into words feelings that have been bogging you down.
In the beginning of this semester, I found myself in a new and very unfamiliar social space. I was with a group of people that I barely knew, and I was embarking on a yearlong journey with them. Navigating the dynamics and complexities of that space was incredibly scary and challenging. All of us were mindful of that, and so we boldly decided to do something that each of us individually would rarely do with their closest friends: We decided to initiate one of these unpleasant and uncomfortable conversations before we even knew each other, before the issues had time to arise, escalate and boil over.
During that conversation, one of the people I have now come to call a friend proposed a terrifying policy: radical honesty. The more we spoke about it, the more we realized that it was exactly what we needed. Radical honesty entails speaking your mind, going against the instinct to bottle things up and expressing discomfort as soon as it emerges. Radical honesty, however, requires an additional adjective: empathetic. Being radically honest is important, but so is being mindful of others’ feelings in the process of doing so.
In the past few days, I have had to have quite a few of these confrontational conversations. Some of them were with individual people, some of them were in larger groups. Every single one of them took every ounce of my emotional energy and every little bit of determination that I had in me to make sure I got through them and did not take the outs that offered themselves along the way. I entered every single one of them with an inescapable feeling of dread, and I could almost sense my “flight” instincts kicking in every time I entered one of those eerily silent rooms.
But every one of those conversations lifted a little bit of weight off my shoulders. Every single one of them gave me some closure and some sense of accomplishment. I can now walk a little more easily, look my friends and loved ones in the eye more directly, and laugh more genuinely.
The fact that most of us seek serenity in our relationships, be it at Yale or beyond, stems from a noble motivation. Trying to avoid conflict, to be agreeable and nonconfrontational, often stems from good intentions. But it also stems from a fear of being honest — and of what the consequences of that honesty might be.
We need to challenge ourselves to feel uncomfortable more often, to enter these awkward spaces and to broach these difficult conversations. It is only when we embrace empathetic but radical honesty that we will truly manage to get along, not just in theory but also in practice.
Sophia Catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org .