Sh**ty first drafts of difficult conversations


What if we stopped expecting so much of ourselves (and others) when we’re frustrated, and started accepting that the first draft is going to suck?

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.

She continues,

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.

And then,

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, we’d be better served to stop worrying about our perfect offering and to change our expectations of ourselves and each other going into it.

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.

Image credit: Jeffrey Beall

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  1. says

    Tammy, As a member of the lawyer tribe, the fear of failure is so great in my brethren and sisters at the bar that rough drafts are seldom valued or shared. That’s unfortunate for all those difficult conversations that need to be held in life and in business that would better begin as sh***y! You (and Anne) have it right. When we can learn to welcome the imprecise and imperfect in conversation, we might begin to build more trusting relationships and achieve better business outcomes. Collaboration is not the sharing of perfect solutions, but the exploration of imperfect beginnings. Keep on helping us see the path to better results though more mature difficult dialog. Larry

  2. says

    I’ve been using Ann Lamott’s concept for shitty first drafts for years ! It has gotten me through many a writer’s block. I love this concept! Applying to conversations seems a little more challenging though. For instance, you can erase (or not show anyone) your writing. But someone else sees your “first draft” of a conversation. So there has to be kind of a shared understanding that the first thing you blurt out might not be exactly what you mean… AND, it takes some self-forgiveness, which can be difficult. This is a wonderful concept to introduce in mediation – thank you!

  3. says

    This is excellent advice, Tammy. You’ve normalized the difficulty of achieving the “perfect” conversation which is something that all of us struggle with from time-to-time. I’d like to add that when you do find yourself making mistakes, acknowledging this with a sincere apology can go a long way to making things better (“I’m sorry… I said something just a moment ago out of anger. I was being reactive, and what I said may have hurt you. I didn’t mean what I said. I don’t want to hurt you. Did I hurt you? I’m sorry. May I have a ‘do-over’ so that I can do this better?”)