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Applying clarity and firmness helps with difficult breakups

Applying clarity and firmness helps with difficult breakups

John Engels
John Engels

What do you do when you find yourself in an unsatisfying work setting or relationship? Is it possible to sever ties without animosity?

A couple weeks ago, a young adult friend of mine broke up with his girlfriend.

At 21, this was Ethan’s first serious relationship. He and Alyssa met as college freshmen and had just ended their junior year.

He called breaking up with Alyssa “just about the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.” That’s because they were good together: lots of common interests, deep respect for each other, and the ability to communicate honestly and openly.

So why the breakup?

Ethan knew that, although he cared about Alyssa, he wasn’t ready to make a long-term commitment. This wasn’t about Alyssa personally. It was simply that Ethan felt he needed to expand his life experience and discover more about himself.

Looking forward to a summer internship in a major city and the fall semester studying abroad, Ethan knew, deep inside, that he had reached a turning point in his life. Now was the appropriate time to end their relationship.

He had a genuine respect for Alyssa and didn’t want to act cowardly. For both of their sakes he chose to have a purposeful, face-to-face conversation instead of texting.

It was difficult to find the words and speak them. He struggled to communicate his message clearly without watering it down or pulling back on his desired result, but he pushed himself to proceed.

Ethan had correctly anticipated Alyssa’s surprised and emotive reaction. He acknowledged her thoughts and feelings. She asked hard questions and made some good points. He listened, then stood firm in his resolve.

Ethan learned three important lessons about the unpleasant experience of breaking up.

First, he learned that fear and discomfort are part of life and often accompany good decisions. “How you feel shouldn’t determine the decision,” he told me. “What was important to me was that I knew this was the right decision. When I started to question myself because of my own distress, I just kept remembering that the decision made sense.”

Second, Ethan realized his decision had little to do with Alyssa. This wasn’t about any deficiency in her; it was about timing and his need to put himself in new situations. Conscious of the fact that there was no fault to be found in the relationship, he was able to maintain the clarity he needed to express himself and remain true to his decision.

Third, Ethan trusted the long-term over the short-term consequences of his decision. He knew that in the short-term, this would hurt. Sitting across from Alyssa during the breakup conversation would be excruciating. In the immediate aftermath, he might feel inward pressure to call off his decision. He would miss her and might wish to “go back” to how things used to be. For a few weeks, his decision would trigger doubt and guilt.

But Ethan had the foresight to focus on the long term. “I wanted to take full advantage of my summer internship and semester abroad, and to see where those adventures might take me. I couldn’t do that and maintain a relationship. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us.”

Ethan recognized that he had reached an important and necessary juncture. He chose to face a difficult decision head on and to make it with integrity, maturity and purpose.

Breakups and business leaders

Business leaders also face “breakup” situations, some of them one-sided. Those include leaving a valued but unfulfilling partnership, parting ways with a high performer who doesn’t mesh with the desired culture, or leaving a safe and steady position to risk greater personal rewards.

The usual response to an impending breakup is avoidance.

Sometimes, avoidance is strategic and helpful, allowing more time to think through various options.

But most of the time, avoidance is automatic and emotionally driven. In those cases, putting off a breakup usually intensifies any final interactions.

One sensible alternative to avoidance is acting on principles. Two principles govern the process of severing ties: clarity of purpose and open communication.

Clarity of purpose

When leaders make tough decisions, shaky hands and second guesses are to be expected. However, with thoughtful consideration of all factors, they can usually find clarity of purpose.

Ethan spent weeks thinking about his options. He initiated discussions with a trusted resource who had no investment in the outcome. He weighed the choices carefully, finally arriving at a decision he deemed most sensible.

Taking the time to clarify his purpose gave Ethan the confidence to execute.

Open communication

Business and partnership breakups often get so entangled in legal and financial consequences that the participants fail to attend to individual relationships. Commonly, distancing and blaming replace poise and benefit of the doubt.

Highly reactive breakups are bad for business and unhealthy for the people involved.

Whenever ties are severed, it’s a good idea to include face-to-face dialogue as part of an overall strategy. Taking responsibility for one’s own part in the breach pushes the conversation to higher maturity.

Finally, when facing breakups, leaders will likely benefit from Ethan’s experience, which can be summarized simply: acknowledge discomfort, don’t blame and think long.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

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