the nature of unsettling conversations

8th February 2019

How are you with those unsettling conversations?

Last Saturday I ventured out into the glorious winter snow, took a train to Oxford to spend the afternoon at a workshop with the poet David Whyte.

Pamphlets had been left on every chair in St Algates church, baring the somewhat ambitious (and it turned out, very apt) title: ‘The Conversational Frontiers of a Human Life’.

We took our seats with coats over our knees, sipping weak tea, as polite chatter bounced around the centuries-old rafters.

Opening with a poem, David set the tone for an exploration of conversations: the ones we keep having, the ones we need to stop having and the ones we protect ourselves from.

Just beyond
It’s where
you need
to be.
Half a step
and the rest
by what
you’ll meet.

I’ve thought a lot about the nature of conversation since Saturday.

And especially the conversations that require me to go just beyond myself.

When I first started coaching, I was both thrilled and unsettled by the nature of conversations with clients – there was just no way to know where it would go, what would be unearthed.

It took time to let go of my need to tie everything into a neat bow before the end of a session. Learning to stop fixing took longer. Learning to be present in a way that allowed the other person to find some lost part of themselves, is ongoing.

Lately, there have been other conversations that have been uncomfortable.

I have found myself avoiding asking for what I need, to keep the peace (even though the result does not feel anything like peace to me).

I have messed up by not paying attention and double-booking myself, letting people down. Ack!

I have been at the edge of my understanding of another’s experience and felt the bubble of self-doubt rising urging me to bow out, to stay silent, to protect myself from embarrassment or causing unintended offence.

Sometimes it’s bloody painful to accept the invitation to be the change we want to see in the world.

I must be willing to screw up, to apologise, to repair, to learn. To resist the desire to defend and justify, to explain, or to ask if I am doing ok, if I still belong.

I try to remember that in human terms, I am still learning to walk. It takes time. Its courageous work.

And there is something that happens when I stay in conversation. A richness, an expansion that is only possible when I take a ‘half-step into self-forgetting’.

Because what happens if we never go beyond ourselves?

I know I will sit around tables with faces that look just like mine. I’ll be able to blame someone else for not reading my mind. I’ll share opinions with people who share them anyway. I can be content that I am right. I never have to sit in the discomfort of complexity and nuance.

I know there is some solace here, but I also know this comes at a cost.

There are some conversations that are meant to unsettle us. To challenge and stretch us so we can step beyond ourselves.

‘The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation,
speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities,
discovering a genesis of hope.’

– Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Halfway through Saturday afternoon, there was a tea break and David offered to sign books. We queued as if it were an Olympic sport.

I followed the shuffle forwards, wondering what I would say to this man whose words have been with me through loss and grief and heartbreak, who has helped me make sense of the world, who has opened me up to new friendships over a shared love of his verse. I could feel my robot heart beating a little faster as we exchanged a smile in greeting. He signed two books for dear friends, another for me.

And how do you spell that?
Sugar, Alpha, Sugar.
And are you from Australia?
New Zealand.
Oh, I was just in New Zealand.
Oh really, whereabouts?
It’s beautiful! I grew up near there. Did you get to Lake Wanaka?

But he’d already moved on to the next person.

Some conversations are just polite surface chats, right?

What conversations are you reluctant to have? What assumptions are you making about what will happen if you have this conversation? What is the first step you can take? How can you support yourself?



Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totallyInstagram - join me there?


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