One of the practices I’ve found helpful as a polyamorous person is the having of courageous conversations. I like to call them this as opposed to “difficult discussions” because I want to acknowledge the bravery with which we all approach the table to have them.
It takes a lot of courage to invest in direct, open, and honest conversation. But I assure you, the return on investment is huge.
So what do I mean when I say “courageous conversation,” anyway? Well . . . it’s simply the intentional coming together of more than one person for the purposes of communicating. Exchanging ideas, solutions, perspectives, concerns, joys – about issues, past events, upcoming dates, overall themes, desires, needs, wants, agreements – in a safe, calm space where all parties agree to honor the others.
Doesn’t that sound nice? It fucking is.
So look – I do not come from a wellspring of mature communication practices. There were people I really opened up to through the years however, and I began to understand through those experiences what richness communication could bring to our relationships. What took some time to nail down was how to exchange potentially upsetting information about ourselves while being supportive of the other people involved – and that takes some courage. (And some, ahem, emotional maturity.)
But I swear to cats, it’s not that hard if you’re willing to do the work.
Here are the ingredients I find necessary to set the scene for a safe and productive discussion about any topic:
- A date on the calendar – in one of my relationships, we’ve found it helpful to have a quarterly “town hall” between the members of the V triad I’m in. This is me, my boyfriend, and his wife (my metamour). This date is on the calendar a couple months in advance because we are crazy busy and it’s important to us, but any date far enough out to give people enough time to anticipate and mentally prepare for a discussion is ideal.
- An agenda – we exchange emails on an agreed upon date a couple days prior to the meeting listing items we’d like to bring to the table. These are just items to discuss, not a personal essay on feelings. An agenda works two ways – it helps keep the discussion focused, and it allows everyone to process the topics a bit and not have to worry about feeling blindsided once they get to the table. Knee-jerk reaction self is not one’s best self!
- A neutral location – but really, this could be anywhere that everyone feels safe and comfortable. For us, we usually use my boyfriend and his wife’s house because my apartment has kids in it and they’ve made me feel very welcome in theirs. You just want to be somewhere where everyone has equal rights, particularly if there are elements of hierarchy between members of the discussion – like a primary partner and a secondary partner.
- Tissues – because feelings happen!
- Sugar – or foods, or anything to keep energy up. I don’t recommend alcohol. While it may relax people at the outset, it has the potential to go badly. Personally? I like to make a dinner and then start chatting over dessert. Cooking the dinner together as a group is nice, too.
But you also have to manage your communication techniques in a way that is non-violent and conducive to an exchange.
This is what you need to show up with in your head and your heart:
- An open mind – because of course you do.
- A detachment from the outcome – this is a team effort and you don’t get to decide how things shake down. You may be asking for something that another person cannot provide. They may address an issue you feel defensive about. You only need to share your part and let them share theirs. The outcome is a natural occurrence, not a stated goal to steer towards.
- An understanding of your motivation – and this might be the most important part. We are all capable of using words in ways that influence. I would go so far as to call myself a master manipulator! But that’s not how this works. If I know I’m going to say something just to make someone else retreat, I will not say that thing. This is especially critical when you’re communicating an injury or hurt feeling. I’ll come back to this with an example in just a bit.
- Compassion – an acknowledgement that everyone is coming to the table with a sense of vulnerability, and that generally what you need to feel safe is also what they need to feel safe.
So I want to break down how a courageous conversation might go about a sensitive topic. Let’s use a hypothetical from last week’s blog about my plan to negotiate up front about times when I have to refrain from revealing the extent of my relationship with my boyfriend in public. Part of that plan is to revisit what worked and what didn’t after the fact if necessary.
In this hypothetical, let’s pretend I have had a bad reaction to seeing my boyfriend be affectionate to his wife while seemingly ignoring me – this will have been understood up front, but I would like to ask for some changes during future times when we need to act in a similar fashion.
- Agenda item – when we exchange lists prior to our discussion, I will say that one of the things I’d like to talk about is how our outing went for me as a “friend” – I will avoid writing a big long list of feelings, because dumping via email is unfair and it doesn’t give the other people involved a chance to process in the same space.
- The presentation – I will admit to having an unexpected reaction to a negotiated scenario and ask for us to do things differently in the future. I will also acknowledge that no one did anything wrong to prevent anyone feeling defensive. My feelings are mine and no one makes me have them. I get to talk about why I have them and what I think might be helpful. Remember where I mentioned understanding my motivation? That’s where this comes in. There’s a big difference between “I had an unexpected reaction to your totally normal behavior” and “You made me feel like I wasn’t even there” . . . yeah?
- The proposal – I can ask for some changes to the arrangement that will make me feel more reassured in the moment. Perhaps it’s a discreet text exchange while we’re out and about. Maybe it means a different seating arrangement. And for the purposes of this exercise, let’s pretend I ask for something a little extreme: I will ask that my partner not show his wife affection when we’re all out together because that will eliminate what’s giving me the negative feelios.
- The discussion – questions may be asked here for clarity, or discovery of other possible solutions. This is also a place where epiphanies often occur! Face to face discussions often bring about what’s best for the group as opposed to what’s best for the individual.
- The response – my boyfriend and my metamour would likely be totes amenable to discreet texting and me sitting next to my boyfriend, and they would likely not be okay with modifying their public presentation as a couple to appease my insecurity. Because this is an issue that would affect both of them, I would expect both of them to give me feedback on my proposal – this would include their feelings about the changes, and likely an acknowledgement of how I felt. (We work well like that!)
- Resolution – small changes agreed to moving forward, but I did not get everything I asked for.
So as we move through our agenda, each issue is addressed and talked through to resolution to the best of our ability until we make it through the list. Sometimes we’re just trying to understand each other. At the end, I like to point out that we all do an incredible job of putting the necessary effort into making our relationships healthy. It’s important to acknowledge what you’re grateful for, and this process is something that enhances what I have with them.
And there are times when an issue cannot be deferred to a quarterly discussion. Sometimes, we need to call an impromptu meeting on a single issue so that it doesn’t fester and become divisive in the meantime – regardless of timing, we still follow these basic steps to facilitate discussion.
This little branch of my polycule has a discussion coming up next week. It will be our fourth! And as always, I am grateful for and looking forward to it.
I’m a lucky girl.