When Easy Conversations Don’t Seem So Easy

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Doctor Neha: Welcome. This is Shaheen. I’ve known Shaheen for many years. She is a dermatologist, and I knew her when I lived in San Francisco. She is a brave soul who is willing to ask her communication questions so all of you could learn. So welcome, Shaheen.

Shaheen: Thanks, Neha.

Doctor Neha: So tell me what’s been on your mind. What kind of communication question do you have?

Shaheen: This is perfect timing because I’m about to have an important conversation with my colleague. She’s my boss. She’s also a physician, and I’ve been working with her for four months now. I really enjoy it. She is a delight to work with, and I want to work with her more. When I first started with her, we had discussed starting two days a week and then increasing my days. She was going to make some more space in her office by clearing out one of her rooms to make it an exam room. She was also going to hire a new medical assistant for me.

It’s been four months and that hasn’t happened. I know she’s the type who needs some reminders sometimes or a little nudge or a little push, but she’s my boss. I respect her, and I like her, and I want to continue to work with her. So my question is how do I politely, deferentially bring this up to say, “Hey, it’s been four months and I would love to increase my days. What’s going on with the room? Can I have kind of a time commitment from you so I can plan my schedule with my kids and with my nanny?

Doctor Neha: Do you get any indication that she’s on track with all of that happening four months later?

Shaheen: Yes, a month ago, at the beginning of December, she was excited and brought up to me that the landlord had agreed to put up the wall. All she had to do is clear out the storage. She said, “At the beginning of January, it looks like you’ll be able to be here.” And I said, “That’s great. I would love to give up some days at Kaiser and be here more.” It’s January 8th and nothing is cleared out. Granted, it’s holiday time and people were sick. I completely understand. But even the staff is telling me, “You need to give her a bit of a nudge. Tell her, ‘By this date, can we please have a commitment that the wall will be up, that we’ll start looking for a medical assistant to hire?’” So the good thing is I know the staff wants me there—that’s always nice—but they’re also getting a little frustrated and antsy. Everybody wants the same thing. How do I remind her politely?

Doctor Neha: So tell me what’s the importance of that extra room getting done? What will it give you?

Shaheen: That’s another great question. Right now, I’m there Wednesdays and Fridays without an extra room. So we don’t really need the extra room. I was going to bring that up and say, “Could I just be here another day even if the room isn’t done?” That’s one way I could approach it. But it’s a bit crowded because it’s me, my boss and another provider, so three of us on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’d be nice to have the extra room with extra space, but it’s not a hundred percent necessary.

Doctor Neha: All right. So this starts with the question: What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of happening if you say something to her? First of all, not many people speak of their boss like this, so I just want to take a moment to recognize the fact that you really respect her. You enjoy working with her and the staff values you, so this is amazing. Usually people don’t come to me with these questions. You’re basically asking, “How do I have this conversation?” So tell me what you’re worried about.

Shaheen: I’m worried about being too pushy. I feel like she’s made space for me to be there. She gave me one of her medical assistants. We’ve talked about it a month ago, and I guess I’m worried about being too pushy or too overbearing and irritating her. I like her, so I don’t want to irritate her—and the whole point is I want to be there more. So the last thing I want is for her to feel is any negative feelings because, like you said, it’s a very positive place. I look forward to going to work, I look forward to adding more days, and I get along with everybody.

Doctor Neha: So it sounds like the pushiness is one thing you’re worried about. The other thing, Shaheen, that I’ve learned about you over the years is that a time is important to you. Time matters to you. So when, when you say to me, “Hey, I’ll meet you at 6:00” or “I’ll call you at 6:00,” at 5:59 or 6:00, the phone is ringing. You have a high level of integrity to keeping your word and what it means to be on time.

So when your boss pulled you aside a month ago and said, “By January…” Did she say the first of January or early January?

Shaheen: She said the beginning of January.

Doctor Neha: So it’s still the beginning of January. So this is when to pay attention to the level of agreement you have. There’s a difference between the beginning of January and January 1st, right? So the good news is nothing’s late yet. We’re at the beginning of January. That was the timeframe that she had discussed. So what you’re doing is you’re just checking in. You might say, “Happy new year! I was wondering when you have fifteen or twenty minutes that we could check in.” She’ll tell you when a good time is, so when that time comes, you get to say to her exactly what is true.

You might say, “At the turn of a new year, it always has me reflecting on the previous year. You are one of the biggest blessings I had this last year since we’ve come together in the last four months. I’ve enjoyed working together so much and not only you, but your staff. You’ve been so accommodating, and I really appreciate that. In December you pulled me aside and said you’re thinking about me being here more and creating the room, so I was curious if there is anything I can do to support this? Is there anything you need? Are we still on track, or do you need more time? Where are we?” So you’re giving space to release the pressure valve.

Your fear tells me that you’ve had some sort of past experience when you spoke the truth and somebody interpreted it as pushy. Because you’re not giving me anything that indicates this is the current reality at this office. Does that sound true?

Shaheen: Yes, in my last job.

Doctor Neha: OK. So don’t let the fear from your past control your present; that was a different experience and this is a different experience. So your job is to trust this experience and show up with self-trust, self-confidence and openness. This is true. You really are at a place where you’re happy and everyone likes and respects you. Your boss really wants you to be there more and wants to support you. It’s true. So how could you come with full trust, full openness, full curiosity and willingness in order to have your dreams come true? So how does that feel in your body?

Shaheen: Feels great. I feel lighter.

Doctor Neha: At the beginning when you were talking about being worried about being pushy, could you feel anything in your body?

Shaheen: Yes, tightness in my shoulders. Now they are relaxed.

Doctor Neha: So often when you’re coming from fear, it is more constricting physically, than when you’re coming with openness, joy and curiosity, which feels like letting go, or a sense of relaxing and ease. So notice your intentions ahead of time about how you want to go into this conversation, then envision her being receptive and being interested in co-creating this situation for you.

So what takeaways do you have?

Shaheen: I think one is not to come from a place of fear, not to let the past control the present and the future. Like you said, it’s a different place and it’s a different person. That’s a huge lesson for me.

Doctor Neha: By the way, that’s usually where anxiety comes from. When we have an experience in the past and then, because of it, we try to control the future because we are worried about “What if, what if, what if…?” We’re trying to control not feeling the way we felt in a past situation. If you shift into self-trust and you believe what you’re experiencing, an ease comes with it. You won’t take things so personally.

Shaheen: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: That’s huge. So thank you. For all of you out there who struggle with an experience that felt painful or hurtful and worrying that you’re now recreating experiences that feel similar and approaching those situations with fear, shift out of that. Focus on experiencing what’s right in front of you and your own self-trust so that you can create the outcome that you desire. Thanks, Shaheen.

Shaheen: Thank you.

Awareness Prescription When You’re Worried about a Conversation

  1. Ask yourself, “What am I (really) worried about?”

  2. What past experience is familiar and might be contributing to your concern today?

  3. Take a slow, deep breath and choose to move forward as an act of self-trust.

  4. Ask the other person, “When is a good time for you?”

  5. Start the conversation with gratitude, then get genuinely curious about the issue.

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