Can you relate to this? “Sarah (her 12 year old daughter) is so angry with me. She doesn’t understand why I don’t go to her weeknight basketball games, like every other parent. Or why I don’t willingly spend hours with her at the mall each weekend. I’ve told her I can’t physically do that stuff. I want to spend time with her but not that way. Can’t she see how tired and sick I am? The ulcerative colitis symptoms get worse when I don’t get enough rest. I barely make it through my work day and struggle to keep going. I’ve told her I’m only doing what I need to do — for my health and to keep our household going. She doesn’t buy it. She says I have the energy for what I want to do. How do I convince her that I don’t have a choice?”
Regardless of the details, the story line is common. It’s true that making choices and juggling priorities is part of all relationships. But the nature of chronic symptoms make this a big challenge. What looks simple for healthy people (“I’ll go to that party tonight”) can be a very tricky place for you (“If I go to that party, I’ll be exhausted tomorrow”). Here’s some of what might be going on:
- Waxing and waning, unpredictable symptoms that impact your capacity, and are invisible, make the ‘right’ decision a moving target. How do you share this with others?
- You’re working under the assumption that your health leaves you no choice. Do you expect other people share that assumption?
- When others are unhappy with your decision, believing that you’re choosing among options, you feel angry and disappointed. What do you do with that?
- In this messy dynamic, how do you know if you are arguing about the same thing?
Making choices is like breathing air, it’s embedded in every aspect of daily life. Choices range from the mundane (I”ll have buttered ,not plain, toast) to the momentous (I’m moving across the country). When you live with chronic symptoms that impact what you can do and how you do it, it’s most likely that your health drives all decisions, big and small.
If you think about it, it’s easy to see why what looks like choice to others feels like necessity to you. They can’t see your pain or fatigue. They assume that today is like yesterday. They’re not focused on finding correlation between what you do and how you feel. It’s these assumptions that muddy the water, making it tough to make clear requests that yield appropriate responses.
Recently,a stomach virus with high fever kept me from leading a meeting that I’d worked hard to prepare. I was miserable having to back out at the last minute. But unlike when chronic issues flare, I didn’t worry about how people would respond. There was no doubt how sick I was and everyone could relate. That’s never the case when my chronic illness symptoms flare. They’re ‘subjective’ and invisible. Worse, it’s not the first and won’t be the last time that I decline or back out. Chronic symptoms make it much harder to ‘just say no’.
I’ve found it’s useful to address this messy place by noticing the nature of the conversation you’re having. With that understanding, you can use language that makes your purpose clear and yields a response you’re looking for. In You Are What You Say, Dr. Matthew Budd and Larry Rothstein identify 5 types of conversations:
- REQUESTS: an action that you take when you seek the assistance of another in satisfying an underlying concern. Made in the present, it invites a future action by others. For example, “Would you pick up dinner tonight since I’m particularly tired and don’t want to cook?”
- PROMISES: A promise is what you speak to indicate your commitment to fulfilling what someone else has requested. It implies shared understanding of what’s being requested. For example, “I know that it matters a lot to you and I will do my best be at your office party.”
- DECLARATIONS: A declaration is an utterance in which someone with the authority to do so brings something into being that wasn’t there before. It opens possibility. For example, “I will finish creating the new department website by the end of the month.”
- ASSESSMENTS: An assessment is a judgment that you make about the world in the interest of taking some action. For example, “It seems like it’s not too hot today so I will try to take a mile walk outside.” Hot or not is in the eye of the beholder. Assessments aren’t facts even if others share the same assessment.
- ASSERTIONS: An assertion is a statement you make for which you are willing to provide evidence. For example, “I am the best person for this task because it’s very complicated, I’ve done it before and I know what it takes to do it correctly.” Assertions are either true or false. If you can’t provide proof, sometimes you have to withdraw the assertion.
Take a minute and think about the last conversation you initiated. Ask yourself, what were you looking for? What did you get? If it wasn’t a success, what could you have said differently? Most conversations happen on the fly and don’t give us the time to consider the underlying purpose. But if you notice that your words are hitting a wall and building resistance, you might take a break so you can look at the conversation through this lens. Clear purpose allows you to manage even the stickiest conversations more effectively.
Who knows? You might even get to a place where you can “just say no’ without getting unnecessary and hurtful push back.
For more information, check out “Are You Talking” in my Guidebook series. Or email me , Rosalind@ciCoach.com, about how I can work with you to make more effective decisions and manage your relationships.