What if we stopped expecting so much of ourselves (and others) when we’re frustrated, and started by assuming the first draft of our conversation is going to stink?
Ring the bells that still can ring– Leonard Cohen, Anthem
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
What if we could let each other off the hook by agreeing that these kind of conversational first drafts will probably be filled with muddy thinking, poor language choice, and maybe even a dash of dramatic teeth-gnashing? What if we, in the famous words of writer Anne Lamott, allowed ourselves (and others) the latitude to have shitty first drafts?
In her bestselling book on the art of writing, Lamott confesses,
In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.
Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
Substitute the word “arguing” for “writing,” and Lamott’s wisdom still holds.
Sometimes, it’s best to stop worrying about our perfect offering and to change our expectations going into it.
Giving yourself (and them) express permission for a sh**ty first draft
Here are some ways to phrase a request or suggestion for a sh**ty first draft:
- “I’m thinking of this conversation as a first draft, a first effort that we can edit later.”
- “Let’s cut each other some slack if we don’t pick the right words every time, ok?”
- “If I choose the wrong word, I’d appreciate you giving me a moment to come up with a better way to say it.”
- “I’ve been putting off this conversation because I wanted to find the perfect way to say things. But I realized that the quest for perfection was preventing me from talking about something that’s really important to me. So I hope we’ll give each other a break if we don’t say the perfect thing every moment.”
- And if you’re helping others: “Sometimes conversations get testy because someone doesn’t choose the right words. I expect that’ll happen today. I suggest we all cut each other some slack when that happens, and give the speaker a chance to reconsider and revise.”
Maybe before we can raise the bar of our difficult conversations, we need to lower it for a while first. Maybe before we can expect a difficult conversation to rise to the level of grace, we need to allow it to wallow in the muck. And make our peace with that.