Dealing with Sven,
How to Write a Difficult Letter
Some years ago I wanted to write a letter to my dad to say some difficult things that I just felt must be said. I consulted with my sister Mary, who understood him better than I, and she said “Write a shortletter, with only one point. If you say too much he’ll get lost in it. Then she told me about Sven.
Sven was a Swede who worked for a farmer in our area. (You know I’m a Swede so I can tell a story about a Swede). One day the farmer decided to pay Sven by check instead of by cash. He told Sven “You take this to the bank and they’ll give you your cash.” “O.K.” says Sven.
Off he goes to the bank. The teller takes the piece of paper and turns it over and tells him to sign the back. “Vat? No Vay!” says Sven and he grabs the check and goes stomping out.
A couple days later he goes to the bank in the next town and presents the check. The teller turns the check over and starts to explain and Sven reaches to grab the check. The teller grabs him by the ears and bonks his head on the desk three times – Bonk! Bonk! Bonk! Then she pulls his head up again and says “Sign here!” “O.K.!” says Sven. He signs the paper and she gives him his cash.
A couple weeks later Sven is in the local grocery store and runs into the president of the local bank. (This is obviously small town Michigan) “Sven!” says the man. “I haven’t seen you in awhile. Where’ve you been? Anything the matter?”
“Oh, I’m banking at de bank in de next town now, cuz day explain tings better!” says Sven.
“So,” repeats my sister- “Sven is dad. Don’t write something complex, just short and simple and only one point.”
In recent times I’ve had to do difficult communications with someone over serious matters with possibly large consequences. I’d wake up at night with anger, thinking of what I’d like to say to this person. In the dark, I’d scribble down what I was thinking so that I didn’t have to carry it on and on in my head. This enabled me to go back to sleep peacefully. Then over days I accumulated a satisfying number of choice phrases that “I’d really like to say.” But in the calmness that this method enabled I was able to sift through all my choice phrases and (sadly) throw out most of them as I measured the possible result of saying all this. I could focus in on a simple clear communication of the most important points I needed to communicate in a way that might best be heard by the other.
I seldom respond quickly to difficult emails or communications; I find it best to sleep on things, often have another person read what I think I’ll send. My goal is to be heardabout something that’s difficult for both of us to talk about, something over which there’s controversy and emotion. Keeping emotions quiet and out of the discussion gives me the best chance of being heard. I even try to bring myself to a place of respect and LOVE towards the other, at least as “God” or their Creator loves them. This enables me to write the very best letter possible.
I just have to share one more story here. When I began counseling at Triton College, one of the first people to come to me was a Kurdish woman from Iraq, in her burka, with a serious family problem. Her father had two wives, 6 children by the first, 9 children by the second, all the children were adults now living around the world, and the father was getting old. He had built a large house for the two families, the first family on the first floor and the second family on the smaller second floor. The two wives and families hated each other. The second family claimed the first was given more meat than the second, better clothes, etc. Now the two wives still live in the house and maybe a couple grown children. The dilemma: when the old man dies, who will get the house? “We’ll be actually killing each other over this,” said the young woman, the peacemaker.
I listened to this and at first panicked, thinking”What on earth can I say?” But then I remembered Sven. This father seemed clueless, never understood why the two wives and families hated each other. So I told the young woman the story of Sven and my own father. She laughed and nodded, “Yes, this is him!” I told her, “Write him a short clear letter, to the point: “Dad, we will all be killing each other if you die without a will. Please write a will saying who will get the house.”
She went away and a couple weeks later I saw her in the hallway and asked how things were going. She said her father had just sent a video, which she expected would tell everyone his wishes about this. She hadn’t had a chance to see it yet but was hopeful it would say clearly for everyone how he wanted things to be.”
I’m amazed that Sven is such a universal person!