The bodega near my apartment sells dented cat food cans. The owner of the bodega is a warm, wonderful man who is deeply proud of his store, and I want to support his business, but (after an earlier mossy, green cat food incident) I refuse to buy dented cans.
I have an internal debate in my head about whether or not I should talk to the owner about the issue. If I were losing money because my cans were dented, I would be thankful if someone clued me in on it, but of course, it’s more complicated than it sounds.
The dented cat food cans are what organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz calls “undiscussable.” Undiscussables are the things we desperately want to say but feel that we shouldn’t – either to protect someone from feeling hurt or to avoid our own pain or embarrassment.
To me it’s a simple issue of surprise aversion. The undiscussable issues in our lives remain undiscussable because we don’t know how people will react if we bring them up. It’s like closing our eyes and jumping into a deep, dark void.
In the case of the bodega owner, I have no idea whether he’ll be grateful, embarrassed, angry, or what… I don’t know whether his personality, his culture, and his mood will lead him to be receptive to what I have to say. So I don’t say it. And the cans remain dented.
This makes me think: if it’s so hard to talk to a near-stanger about cat food, no wonder it often feels impossible to talk about the really serious issues with the people in our lives who really matter. You open your mouth to speak, and there’s an invisible hand clutching your vocal cords to keep you safe and silent.
Only it isn’t really safer to avoid the undiscussables – not in the long run. When we don’t discuss the undiscussables, little by little our resentment builds up, conflict deepens, and trust degrades. The longer we avoid the unknown, the scarier it becomes.
So how do you dive into the deep-end? Schwarz recommends created a ground rule with the people in your life – whether it’s at work or at home – to discuss the undiscussables. This rule is two-fold: the speaker has to be willing to speak, and the listener has to be willing to listen. It’s still tougher than it sounds, but I’ve seen it work over and over again at companies, and in my personal life.