In the first part of this series, I described how we might recognize a “withhold.” This is a feeling or thought pertinent to my relationship with someone, that I do not express. My withholding impoverishes the relationship. It creates an emotional charge that I manage by distancing from the other and by telling myself a story of frustration or resentment that becomes my reality. The promise of delivering the withhold is that the charge may be resolved, the distance closed and the story changed. When I tell you (finally) that the way you talk to me hurts my feelings, or that a decision you made felt unfair to me, there is a chance that the relationship will improve.
Yet, we have our reasons for withholding in the first place. We may pause to consider whether delivering the withhold is wise. We may also want to consider whether how we deliver it will matter.
These questions are ones Team considers in training for the workshop, recognizing that withholds from Team members will carry weight. Delivering withholds risks harming the relationship. Why, someone might ask, don’t you just keep your opinions to yourself? While I tend to think that minimizing the number of withholds I carry in my relationships is a worthy goal, I recognize that delivering withholds may cause conflict or discomfort. I can avoid this by withholding. If I do not tell you that the way you relate to your partner concerns me, or that you seem to me to be drinking more these days, or that you don’t seem to me to be hearing what your children are saying to you, I can avoid an uncomfortable conversation.
But that can’t always be a sufficient reason to withhold. It may also be that delivering the withhold will encourage change and/or bring us closer. The discomfort may just be turbulence at the boundary. How can I tell what to do? Perhaps I have spoken to you about this many times before without any satisfying result. Or perhaps I sense that you will not hear me or will react precipitously or unproductively. Or perhaps, I judge that our relationship is not close enough to contain the resulting conflict. Perhaps I am not the right person to give you this feedback. It is certainly possible that these stories are true, and that it is better to continue to withhold. The idea of delivering withholds is not that I say everything that is bothering me; there are times when delivering a withhold will not achieve the enhanced relationship it is aimed at. Still, I note that these stories are exactly the kind we tend to make up to sustain the withhold. We might do well to question ourselves before concluding that we won’t deliver a withhold we have identified. We might ask whether our fear of conflict and discomfort is keeping us silent, or whether we have sound reasons beyond our fears.
Another set of concerns we might have about delivering withholds involves our own feelings. If I am angry or hurt, my “withhold” may be delivered with an intent to hurt or to prove myself right. Since the aim in delivering withholds is to enhance the relationship, to overcome a barrier and become closer, my unresolved feelings may doom my effort. I may find, in considering the withhold I propose to deliver, that I have some emotional work to do before I am ready to communicate with both honesty and care, as well as with availability to developing the relationship. This does not mean that I cannot feel anger or hurt and deliver a withhold that expresses these feelings. Often, these are the most important withholds, since our feeling of hurt and anger are often what keeps us apart from others we care about.
There is, after all, an element of skill in the delivery of withholds. The “same” withhold might be delivered poorly or well, vaguely or clearly, with a tone of aggression or one of compassion, with what sounds like judgment or what sounds like support. It is something we can learn how to do more effectively; we can practice and become better at it. People who are advanced in the art of delivering withholds may be able to deliver ones with more charge and have them still enhance rather than harm the relationship. Perhaps those with such skills may even avoid having major withholds to deliver in the first place.
So, what skills are important as part of the art of delivering withholds? Some we have already referred to. An ability to be aware of and manage one’s own emotions is valuable. A person might simply react to a slight with angry words or gestures and call it a withhold, but this is not what we mean by this term. A withhold has the intention of disclosing something withheld and reflected upon with the aim of deepening the relationship. Being aware when one is angry or hurt, rather than just reacting is a beginning. Being able to own our feelings and then express them directly and responsibly are among the skills to be cultivated in delivering better withholds.
The word “responsibly” covers a lot of territory. Using I statements, speaking personally, avoiding judgment, particularly ones we do not own, growing in our use of non-violent communication – all these and more are involved in getting better at delivering withholds and reaping the rewards of closer connections in relationships. To be able to speak of the particular behavior of the other without presuming to describe character, for example, is an important start. To say, “I noticed that you were late for two meetings this week and I was sad and curious about what is going on with you, ” is very different from saying, “I see you as lazy and irresponsible because you always arrive late to meetings.” Learning to frame and deliver the withhold in the first way rather than the second involves work and development that I can only gesture toward here.
I should say, however, that most of us struggle to deliver withholds perfectly, so we are likely to be vague or express unresolved feelings or even judgment to some extent. We are certainly likely, even if we do it relatively well, to be misconstrued as vague or angry or judgmental even when we are being careful not to be. In the workshop, our process is simply to have the recipient of a withhold say, “Thank you.” For our purposes during the exercise, this may be enough, but even in the workshop, withholds often serve as placeholders for later, more extended conversations. Outside the workshop, that must be the norm. A relationship is largely a conversation and processing the withhold through conversation is what makes for change in the relationship that was suffering from withheld thoughts and feelings. In fact, this sense of being available for further conversation is a good indicator that we might do well to deliver the withhold and get the conversation started.
The “thank you” is important too. It is an acknowledgment by the recipient of the motive and risk of the one delivering the withhold. He or she has sought to deepen a connection. This is an expression of care and interest. It may, nonetheless, be hard to hear what is said to you when someone delivers a withhold. In Part 3 on withholds, I will talk about what both parties might do after a withhold is delivered.