June 15, 2021
Difficult conversations are a part of anyone’s life who is serious about personal relationships. Many books have been written about the techniques to use to make a difficult conversation productive. Nothing I have read or been taught has connected with me the way a chapter in Dickens did.
This will make more sense if you read the entire book, but here is an attempt to summarize the background of this conversation. A poor young girl from the wrong side of the tracks is abandoned by her father and brought into a prosperous family. She is not adopted, but is brought into the family to be a servant and to be educated. She develops a love for the family and especially the oldest girl. The oldest girl is married off into a loveless marriage with a man who is both wealthy and much older than she is.
An ambitious young man enters the situation and attempts to seduce the wife. The wife is slow to recognize what is going on, but when she finally does she runs home. The servant girl determines to defend her from any further efforts at seduction and goes to confront the seducer. The servant girl’s name is Sissy Jupe and the seducer is Mr. Harthouse. Here is the first part of the conversation that takes place.
‘She hurried there last night. She arrived there in great agitation, and was insensible all through the night. I live at her father’s, and was with her. You may be sure, sir, you will never see her again as long as you live.’
Mr. Harthouse drew a long breath; and, if ever man found himself in the position of not knowing what to say, made the discovery beyond all question that he was so circumstanced. The child-like ingenuousness with which his visitor spoke, her modest fearlessness, her truthfulness which put all artifice aside, her entire forgetfulness of herself in her earnest quiet holding to the object with which she had come; all this, together with her reliance on his easily given promise—which in itself shamed him—presented something in which he was so inexperienced, and against which he knew any of his usual weapons would fall so powerless; that not a word could he rally to his relief. – Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Dickens identifies five characteristics of a productive difficult conversation. These five things overcome all the differences in perceived power that exist. Sissy has no status, no wealth, limited education, and no power. Even had she possessed any of these things she still would have been at a disadvantage as a young woman confronting an older man.
The first characteristic is child-like ingenuousness. Sissy came with no script. All she brought to the conversation was love for her mistress and a desire to protect her regardless the cost. The result was a simple directness that was totally disarming.
The second characteristic is modest fearlessness. Sissy does not pretend that she is strong and that her strength will win the confrontation. What she knows is that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain for her mistress. This quote from C.S. Lewis describes Sissy at this moment:
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” ― CS Lewis
Fear flows from pride. Pride is not limited to class or gender. Everyone is susceptible to it and to the fear it produces. Sissy is humble and that results in her having no fear.
The third characteristic is truthfulness. Truth is simple. As opposed to spin, truth does not move. Mary Poppins taught us that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. This is helpful when the effectiveness of the medication we need is not reduced by the sugar used to hide it. However, in the case of a difficult message to hear sugary words only hide the truth and reduce its impact. Truthfulness connects because most of what we hear are efforts to manipulate and deceive.
The next characteristic is related to humility. Sissy forgot about herself. She was intent on protecting her mistress and sending Mr. Harthouse away. In forgetting about herself she left no opening for Mr. Harthouse to use as a point of attack.
Finally, Sissy did not raise her voice. She did not attempt to soften the message with humor. Instead, Dickens describes and “earnest quiet holding.” She was serious about her mission and her manner made it obvious that she would not be moved from her objective.
The encounter ends with the following dialogue:
‘I suppose a man never was placed in a more ridiculous position,’ he said, after looking down, and looking up, and laughing, and frowning, and walking off, and walking back again. ‘But I see no way out of it. What will be, will be. This will be, I suppose. I must take off myself, I imagine—in short, I engage to do it.’
Sissy rose. She was not surprised by the result, but she was happy in it, and her face beamed brightly. – Hard Times by Charles Dickens
I hope you will take the opportunity to read the full dialogue between Sissy and Mr. Harthouse. It can be found in Hard Times, Book the Third: Garnering, chapter 2: Very Ridiculous. I have found it very helpful and I think you will also.