Starting a difficult conversation (or negotiation or mediation) can feel like opening Fibber McGee’s closet — chaotic, overwhelming, and hope-sucking. But don’t run.
A colleague shared the closet metaphor with me years ago and I’ve passed it along to countless others since. The messy, over-filled hall closet was a running gag on the 1930s-1950s radio show, Fibber McGee and Molly. Chaos ensued whenever someone opened the closet door and the contents spilled out (click here to listen to the closet door being opened).
When you start a difficult conversation, you’re opening that closet door. Things spill out, maybe things that have waited a while to see the light of day. Maybe one of them falls figuratively on your head and you see stars for a moment. It’s easy to stare at the mess in front of you and find even your best hopes quaking in their shoes.
But instead of looking at the entire mess and allowing it to overwhelm you, focus on one object, one small chunk.
Maybe you pick it up and turn it over in your hands, like you would the old baseball mitt that fell out of the messy hall closet. You say to yourself, hey, I remember this. Let’s talk about this.
Or maybe you put it back on the pile because a different small problem caught your attention. Or maybe you sort things a tiny bit first, putting the baseball equipment in one pile and the camping items in another.
Slowly, order is put to chaos. You discover that by working on one chunk at a time, and then another and another, you can get it done.
This post was originally published in 2013 and updated in 2016.