When Is It Time to Dive In?

15/07/2014 11:37 BST | Updated 13/09/2014 10:59 BST

When is it time to dive in? Recently, in the case of one London man who saw another floundering in the Thames, the answer was clear. After trying to help from the riverside to no avail, he took the plunge, even though he didn't consider himself a strong swimmer and remembered Emergency Services' general advice to wait for them.

'You cannot watch someone drown,' he told the Evening Standard. Turns out, his was a good call, not only for his conscience but also for the rescued man.

Most of us find ourselves asking a similar question daily, though not literally. Metaphorically, however, when we see someone who appears to be at risk of drowning in a difficult situation, we want to dive in and save them. Unfortunately, however, the need to do so is not always as straightforward as the example above.

Still, it's human instinct to get involved, particularly when the person is a relative or a close acquaintance. Yet not every situation is critical - but, if left unattended, a difficult situation can become perilous. As such do we weigh in, even if it is at the risk of interfering? Absolutely, but the key is to weigh in and not dive in, albeit cautiously and even so, the task ahead is likely to be risky.

Recently, I had to 'weigh in' on a family matter, as much as I dreaded it. I hemmed and hawed and then eventually hid behind an email. It was a false effort to say the least. This cowardice got me really thinking about why I dreaded weighing in and how I might manage such a situation better the next time around. Another hard talk lurks around the corner. Oh dear!

Luckily for me, experts say that this unease with speaking up comes down to attempting to circumvent conflict. In other words, the brain doesn't naturally like conflict, which it thinks of as dangerous or discomforting. Of course, one of its jobs is to protect us from those very things.

No wonder the dread and the fear set in, but what about how to better manage a difficult conversation? Not all that long ago, I was pretty good at this very thing, working consistently in communications. Even for specialists, though, there is no failsafe formula for getting it right.

But after searching around and reflecting upon past situations, I noted four consistent factors that made the difference as to whether a difficult talk went well or not - the state of the relationship, the respect or lack of it the parties had for one another, the individual approach to conflict resolution and the willingness to stick to the issue.

Looking at the relationship in my most recent situation, I'd say, 'not bad, not bad, as far as I can tell'.

The trouble here is that tension and division in a relationship do not always meet the eye. It could be that the distance between us - physical and emotional - has made it difficult to communicate. Distance like other variables can cloud a situation quite quickly. That might explain why I hid behind an email.

Next, I believe my relative and I do respect one another but admittedly I've been suspicious of some of her decisions over the years and it is likely she has questioned mine, too. Maybe there is a deficit in respect because as sure as oranges are oranges when respect is not intact, it doesn't matter whether the contributor makes valid points or not. Often we see this in the workplace too, where sometimes people leave their jobs because they've lost respect for their boss or the chief executive.

When things get this bad, it is time to look within for one's own understanding of managing conflict, instead of looking outwardly and blaming others.

'When I didn't know how to accept constructive feedback,' a friend said. 'I was pretty bad at giving it too! Once I learned how to accept critical comments, I became so much better at giving them.'

This friend says that though the dread and fear still set in when she faces a hard talk, she doesn't spend time evading the situation any more and finds that the conversation goes much better now.

As for me, I did look at my way of dealing with the hard stuff, but I also took it upon myself to do so for my relative, too. This could be another reason why I chose the email option because, in dealing with the matter passively, I thought we stood a better chance of focusing on the issue. I couldn't imagine a proper conversation transpiring in the absence of key communications abilities, but with hindsight, I see that the email just fudged the issue, exposing the discomfort in communicating altogether.

Getting to the real issue is no walk in the park, particularly when there is a history of ineffective communication, hurt and upset and so on. The issue gets lost. The key is extracting it and attacking it and not each other for a better result.

Years ago when I, an unsophisticated twenty something year old, decided to move to New York City without so much as a relative or a friend to turn to, I had to have a hard talk with my parents; and they in turn had a thing or two to say to me, too. Other relatives weighed in, also.

Every possible thing that could go wrong came up, causing upset and distractions. Honestly, we were getting nowhere and it wasn't until my father, whom I had, and still have a good relationship with, and loads of respect for, put the matter into perspective that we reached a good outcome. My decision to move had been made, he pointed out - the issue was how to manage it. Spot on!

Now, back to the future - the hard talk lurking around the corner. Is it time to dive in? No need to, but weighing in is imminent. This time, however, I'm ready to do so knowledgeably and perhaps bravely, too!