Imagine this… It’s fifteen degrees below zero on a cold winter night, and your dog needs to go outside. You could bundle up in your jacket, boots, hat, and gloves to go out with them – but like I said, it’s fifteen degrees below zero. That’s not going to happen. Instead, you crack open the door, and they bolt outside to take care of their business. Within seconds, they are back at the door, wanting to get in from the cold. It happens in an instant, with no regard for what you’re going to find in your yard when spring arrives. 

Then, the sun gets hotter, and the days get warmer. The snow starts to melt, and the grass is exposed, revealing something else as well. Dog owners, you know where I’m going with this – the yard is filled with reminders of all those cold winter nights when you didn’t pick up after Fido. The beauty of spring is marred by small piles (or big ones depending on the breed) that dot the landscape of your yard… and they’re not going to pick themselves up or magically disappear. They’re yours to deal with, and if you don’t, you’ll likely step in one.

Those piles represent a powerful life lesson for all of us. 

I come from a family where confrontation was never comfortable. Rather than talk through our issues and pick up our piles, it was much easier to brush our challenges under the rug and move on with life. Talking about our challenges would be awkward and hard, so it was much easier to let things go and pretend they never happened. I brought that same mindset into my first marriage, which did not work well for us. Sweeping things under the rug and not confronting challenges leads to the day where you look at the rug and there’s a giant lump in the middle where you’ve been hiding all of the tough stuff. Now you need a shovel, not a broom.

Imagine my shock when Cristina and I started dating, and we had our first confrontation. She had something that was bothering her, and instead of just pushing it under the rug, she wanted to talk about it. Out loud. Over dinner. I don’t recall today what our challenge was. All I remember is the feeling that came over me when I realized we were about to dig into this conversation. Wait, where’s the broom? Where’s the rug? Why am I sweating like this?

I was good at confrontation at work. It didn’t bother me… It was just part of being a leader. But in my personal relationships, conversations like this felt dangerous. It was like holding a grenade. What if the pin came out, or someone threw it? What if it blew up? No, it was much safer not to have these conversations at home. 

Over time, Cristina has taught me to get comfortable talking about what’s going on in my head, what’s bothering me, and those times when I feel overlooked or offended. Learning to deal with confrontation head-on at home has been powerful. Now, instead of piling a thousand little things under the rug, we sweep them up one by one as quickly as we can. We pick up our piles quickly. Yes, the conversations can be uncomfortable, but we’re dealing with issues as they come up. It’s not perfect (we’re not perfect) but it’s better than the alternative.

Here’s the best part. When I was packing all of those little things inside and not talking about them, the pressure would build. Eventually, something small would happen that pushed me to my breaking point, and my emotions would explode. Those piles would explode – it was gross. I’d catch myself getting hot and angry over something that wasn’t really that big a deal. Today, those small things tend to stay small, like they’re supposed to. I’m not saying I’ve mastered this, but I’ve come a long way… and now I’m dealing with fewer piles showing up in my yard.

How do you do this well? When you’re picking up your piles and having these conversations, remember two things. First, make sure you look at yourself first. I’ve discovered that I have a natural bent toward defending myself in all things. When I drop my guard and look around, I usually (almost always) play some role in whatever disconnect we’re encountering. I need to take ownership of my part.

Here’s the second piece to this. The way you have conversations like this, and the words you use are essential. Approach is everything. If your tone is brazen and flippant as you’re sharing what’s on your mind, or you are immediately upset and opposing in your words and body language when the conversation starts, then you may as well skip this. The only way it works is if you are being an active listener and open to sharing your feelings without judging the other person. 

For the guys who are reading this… As a man who grew up in a “sweep it under the rug” home where we stepped around the piles, this all felt very woo-woo at first. Sharing your feelings was not natural, and didn’t feel like something a “real man” did. I was wrong, and I’ve learned that real men live with their emotions in check, and that their strength comes from being strong in all areas of their lives… emotionally, physically, and spiritually. You’ve got to have it all. I am working every day to get stronger in every one of these areas. It’s hard work.

The Takeaway

At home and work, challenge yourself to unpack things quickly and pick up your piles. Stop sweeping confrontation under the rug. If you’re like I was, in the habit of sidestepping challenging conversations, force yourself to get a little uncomfortable. Healthy relationships come with disagreements. It is what it is. Open up quickly, talk it out, and pick up your piles the right way.

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