how to have a firm discussion in a difficult situation
May 11, 2021 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I and my long-time music collaborator have been working on an album since lockdown started (we are in a pod with our SO's and everyone in the pod has been vaxxed at this point). We have been at a standstill, though, since January, due to extenuating circumstances, with no clear schedule to return to working, which is going to become a problem pretty soon. Help me kindly but firmly ask for a schedule, even tentative, to start up again.

The reason why we haven't gotten any work done since January is because my collaborator's brother is having a severe mental health crisis that has landed him in the psych ward and their parents are not very supportive or helpful in advocating for him or finding solutions. It has fallen on my collaborator's lap to research longer-term treatment options, but considering he has no idea what is going on in the psych ward (only his mother has his brother's consent to speak to the doctors and clear communication is not her strong suit) this has been a complicated process.

I am extremely sympathetic having gone through a mental health crisis/psych ward/long term psych treatment situation last year pre-COVID-19, and I have offered myself as a resource and a friendly ear while my collaborator deals with this.

That being said, he has not given me any indication of when he will be available to start our work again - he says his brother's situation is so up in the air that he doesn't want to schedule a session with me and then have to cancel the night before because he needs to drive to White Plains to get his brother on a dime.

I have offered, more than once - especially since we have been on an unintentional break since February - to just let my collaborator off the hook on this project for a few months and we could revisit sometime in the summer. He had a very strong negative reaction to this - he says that our project is the only thing that's keeping him from losing his shit from worry right now and he is committed to getting the work done. He almost starts crying when I offer to give him a few months' breathing room. So, I backed off of that.

But we are still in limbo. He is overdue on two deadlines for this project by nearly six weeks for one and thee weeks for another. He claims he's been working on mixing, but he doesn't have anything to show me regarding progress on the last song we were working on (which we started in December). I understand that he's stressed and exhausted and it's hard to be creative when you are just drained, but if that is the case, I wish he'd just take me up on my offer to take a step back from the project for a while, but I don't want to offer it again because it clearly upsets him when I do.

We are going to run into a problem soon if we don't resolve this, because it looks like my boyfriend and I will be relocating farther away from the city in the next three months. Basically we are expecting an offer letter for a job for him in the next two days, then they will negotiate everything, including a start date, then he will go up there first while I job hunt and sort out our house etc. Basically, I am an hour's drive from my music collaborator's studio now and by the end of August I will be 4 hours away. So we need to come up with a plan, because once my boyfriend signs his offer letter a clock is gonna start. For reference, my collaborator and I were hoping to be fully DONE with this project by December 2020 but various other conflicts on both of our ends interfered with this around the holidays.

I have no doubt if we come up with a schedule and stick with it we'll be done well before August. My collaborator is aware of the impending job offer/relocation and that a clock is about to start for me. How do I gently but firmly lay down the law that we need to set a deadline for this project and stick to it? I have offered my help in getting his brother into a longer term treatment program at the facility I went to last year and would be happy to follow through with that to help everyone, but his parents are dragging their feet. I understand that his brother's situation is unpredictable right now but we are there months behind with no end in sight and if I tell my collaborator that I have unilaterally decided we are just going to take a break and will evaluate options for finishing after my relocation I'm afraid it will destroy him given his past reactions when I have brought this up. I don't want to take away a source of comfort from him while he's going through this scary situation with his brother, but he's not actually doing any work right now - it kind of feels like the idea of the work is what is sustaining him. And that's fine, too, if that's what he needs! This shit is hard, and stressful. But it's leaving me with very few options for how to get back on track.

How do I have this conversation with him, gently but firmly? This kid is like my little brother and I really, really do not want to hurt or guilt him, nor do I want to make an executive decision that he isn't able to follow, or an executive decision that makes him upset and takes away something that is keeping him from falling apart himself. I feel stuck.
posted by nayantara to Human Relations (18 answers total)
Best answer: Although he doesn't want to admit it, you are in fact on a break from this project and there's no particular time when you will be able to resume. It's not clear that, even if you do get a schedule from him that he'll be able to stick to it.

What is your fallback plan? Is it just to re-evaluate after you have moved? Is there a reason that you need to make that explicit to him? Or, might you need to cut your losses in some way, do you have a copy of the files/recordings as they are currently?

Given that you say that you would be ok with a pause and restart later, I feel like the kindest thing to do is to be kind. To tell him kindly when the offer comes through that you will be moving on approx X date and that you would like to finish this before them. See if he comes up with a schedule, or gently ask how the things are going. And then be kind when deadlines are missed and the project is on de facto pause for the time being. If you are going to vent, do so with someone who won't hold it against him if you don't.

I think the alternative probably results in the same thing happening but both of you being more upset about it.

The only thing I would add is make sure you do have a copy of the work that has been completed previously.
posted by plonkee at 2:05 PM on May 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

What practical difference is there between officially taking a break until the summer and just not accomplishing anything until the summer? That might inform the tone of the conversation. Or is the 'take a break' option off the table because of the move?
posted by jacquilynne at 2:05 PM on May 11, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: What practical difference is there between officially taking a break until the summer and just not accomplishing anything until the summer?

None that I can see, but it sounds like there is a huge symbolic difference to the collaborator, who, it sounds like, is clinging to the idea of project as perhaps the only thing that their family crisis has not ruined, or, perhaps, as the only thing in their life right now that is not about that crisis.
posted by thelonius at 2:19 PM on May 11, 2021 [5 favorites]

Agreed that you can just mentally consider this on hold without making it official to him. He can always bring it up on his own.

Actually, is that the concern? That without a plan you may have stuff going on if and when he's ready to start up again? That's ok if it happens, you do not have to immediately jump back into things on his schedule (not that he'd expect you to do so, he just may be so excited he doesn't think about it). You can just say you're so happy to continue working on it, you'll just have to work around X, Y and Z.
posted by ghost phoneme at 2:20 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are a lot of possibilities here, but I'll start with the first one: so what if he has to cancel and go to White Plains on a moment's notice? Are you booking time in a studio that costs money? It kind of doesn't sound like it, so there doesn't seem to be much harm in just scheduling sessions knowing that he might have to cancel.

And just to anticipate a possible concern, I don't think anybody's level of distraction or mood or anything should be a blocker to continuing work. This kind of thing always depends on state of mind and there's no "normal," so just finish it feeling however you do, and you can always remix later. This is to say "do it anyway." If your collab is saying their mood doesn't even allow them to think in project terms, then that's a separate thing from his committments to his brother/fam.

At any rate, it sounds like these channels of communication are open, so it might just be a matter of "hey, let's just power through this and let the chips and schedule fall where they may." If it gets delayed after you've put some work in, at least you're that much further than if you walled the whole project off in order to take care of other concerns, but if the project is an anchor of good in a chaotic world, muddling through and white-knuckling however you can still gets the work done and project moved along. Sometimes things are finished in a broken state, you know?
posted by rhizome at 2:21 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "Take a break" isn't off the table because of the move, but it would require a lot more coordinating to finish post-move because of the increased distance. We can manage a song mixing process remotely, but anything involving actual recording/tracking requires me to be physically present in his studio. It would likely add another 6-8 months to this project because going down there every weekend is just not feasible with a 4 hour drive. He wants to set a deadline for us, he does not want to prolong this project unnecessarily, but he won't actually name a deadline and if I do it, he's afraid he'll be on call for his brother and unable to commit. I recognize this as decision paralysis - I do this under extreme stress too - which is why I'm trying to find a compassionate approach. Right now I'm leaning towards just informing him of my boyfriend's start date and my no-longer-living-close-by date and asking him to tell me realistically what we can do. But I don't want to be so cold and clinical and "I am your supervisor with a Very Serious Concern" about it because that's not our relationship dynamic in life or work.

Hope that context is helpful. Will step back now.
posted by nayantara at 2:22 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think there is nothing more that you can do, that you haven't already done. Your challenge here is not in getting him to start again on your timetable, because you've already proved that that is simply not possible. Your actual challenge is in finding a way to accept within yourself that you cannot control the timescale of this project.

Is there anything specific at stake if it doesn't get completed by a specific date? Do you have contracts to third parties that you have to meet? Any particular reason that it has to be finished soon, other than that you would like it to get finished, and uncertainty is hard to live with? If not, I really think you just have to learn to live with the limbo, accept that his current family crises unfortunately outweigh your personal discomfort at having the project unfinished, and let him come back to it as and when he can.

As others have said, if it helps you, perhaps you can try and mentally tell yourself that the project is "on a break" and if he suddenly sparks into productivity again unexpectedly, then great. Why do you need him to confirm explicitly that he's taking a break from it, rather than you observing that he's not producing any work, and concluding that for yourself?

It sounds like he means a lot to you, and the good news is that you're in a position to do a great kindness to him right now, when he really needs it, by letting him tap away at this project in his own sweet time while he goes through a significant personal trauma. If it never gets finished, or takes two years longer than planned, but gives him great comfort to have it in the background during one of the worst years of his life, that's really something special. By backing off and letting him do what he needs to do rather than demanding schedules and deadlines, you can give him that gift. What else is music for, but to help us through the highs and lows of our lives? Your music doesn't have to be finished to achieve that, it's already doing that work - step back and let it happen.
posted by penguin pie at 2:32 PM on May 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

There is a small chance that the "Cult of Done Manifesto" may help you (as it does in my team at work), but I suspect your collaborator is not in a place where he would welcome these insights (but it might help you in the future).
posted by forthright at 2:45 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your project is on hold indefinitely. I think it'd would be better if your friend admitted this, but he's not the one asking us. When he can't even think of having you come over to record, you're not going to get a schedule out of him. Pursue your move and ease up on trying to get work out of him right now.
posted by zompist at 2:47 PM on May 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would give up on this project entirely if I were you. The friend is in indefinite "I'm not going to plan ANYTHING" limbo and that's not changing, regardless of your move, apparently. If he gets upset if you say anything about it, then don't bother to say anything about it. Just give up on the idea on your own. If years from now he ever brings it up and his life situation has changed, maybe it can come back then. But if he breaks down if you discuss it at all, and this situation with his brother is dragging on forever with no change or improvement, it seems useless to me to even try to have the conversation. It sounds like he is not in any frame of mind to get his act together on this, even if the clock is ticking for you. I can't see how you can get anywhere having a conversation with him about it when he sounds too strung out to function and make decisions, they won't accept your stepping in to help, and he breaks down if you try to talk to him about it.

I admit that I am stumped at the idea that hoping that someday he can work on this project again is the ONLY thing keeping him going and he's horrendously saddened at the idea of Officially Taking A Break when you are already In Indefinite Limbo Break on the whole thing, though. Like, come on, dude.

At best, I think you can say, "Just so you know, boyfriend has accepted a new job in 4HoursAwayPlace and I'll be leaving the area as of August 1" (or whatever) without specifically saying "Time is ticking on our project, buddy," and if it dawns on HIM that maybe there's a timeline and he might want to move along on this while he can, maybe that'll do something. But he needs to get his own brain in gear here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:51 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's one idea:

You take it upon yourself to make a schedule for both of you, with extra time and flexibility, that will involve you working together to stay motivated. Included in this schedule is:

-> "Co-working/mixing" time slots, enough for him to do what needs to be done. During these times, you to go to his place and be there, in a great mood, while he works on mixing and you work on catching up on e-mail, writing new songs, or whatever would be good for you to focus on. In essence, co-working time. If you want and he needs, you can make lunch/dinner for both of you and leave him lots of leftovers, or bring food for both of you and leave lots of leftovers. You can also help in other ways if you want, or just read a novel, whatever you need to do to be a comfort to him while being good to yourself.

-> About 2x as many collaboration sessions as you need. And you tell him that there are extra collaboration sessions, so that, if he needs to cancel a whole bunch of them, it's totally fine.

The schedule is going to look pretty intense, since you'll be scheduling more than twice as much time as you actually need, but you both will know that going in, so it shouldn't stress you out too much. Plus, there's every chance you will finish early!

Don't just create a bunch of deadlines and call it a schedule. You need to propose actual blocks of time -- with start times and end times -- so that your partner has a default that he can then shift around. Do your best to make it around his schedule as you know it, but don't tell him that -- make sure he feels free to move these blocks around with you.

Talk to him before you start making this schedule so you're not springing it on him.

Good luck.
posted by amtho at 4:55 PM on May 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

penguin pie said what I came in here to say, only much better than I would have.
posted by STFUDonnie at 7:37 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: penguin pie, as usual you provide really good insight and I am grateful for your compassion and empathy. In an ideal world, I would just step back and follow your advice. Unfortunately, we have missed two deadlines to third-parties with which we were under contract to deliver (one to a mastering engineer, one to a filmmaker who shot a music video for us but needs a final mix). While everyone has been very kind given his family crisis and also general state of the world, I need to get this done before I move away otherwise it's just going to be too hard, and the music is part of a longer art piece that I am getting paid for contractually. So the stakes are pretty high. We don't have that much more to do; we could track all of my parts in three weekend sessions and then I'm happy to let him take his time to mix.
posted by nayantara at 10:31 PM on May 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

That's important information. I think for your own piece of mimd, you need a fall back plan what to do if he never manages to deliver.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:27 AM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Ugh, pressed button too early.
Like, set yourself deadlines: When will you talk to the third parties? How much of the cost of backing out will you be willing too foot?

If you can't afford to back out, you need a plan to get this thing done without him. When is the last possible time for you to do that? Etc.

I understand that this would be devastating to him. This is why you need to be really clear to yourself what the fallout of his not delivering would be and whether and to what extent you'd be prepared to eat the cost of it (money reputation etc.)
posted by Omnomnom at 2:32 AM on May 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

If he flat out can't do it, what's your plan B? Because I think, if your livelihood and contracts are on the line, it may be time to assume he can't do it and get someone else who can. Explaining that to your current collaborator is an emotional question separate from the business question of how to live up to your contracts.
posted by decathecting at 8:21 AM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

So you are in a pod with this person and both of your SO's. 4 people who have only been able to spend indoor time with each other. I'm assuming you are all pretty close to each other at this point. (it seems some people use the word "pod" in a different way and have a bunch of different pods going on at once, if that's what you have going on this might not be a great approach)

I would talk with his SO to help with some of the schedule details on this, approaching it as something you think he will feel better if he does, and figure out a good time to just... show up. It sounds like he is pretty depressed about things and see if just showing up as a friend who wants to cheer them up and distract them from their family situation by working on your project might work out. Sounds like he has a studio of his own (at home?) and sometimes the planning of when to do the thing can be harder than actually going to do the thing.
posted by yohko at 12:03 PM on May 12, 2021

Response by poster: Hi all. I did end up contacting his SO just to make sure he's okay since he's been off the grid for a while. She responded saying that she was grateful I was checking in, that they had only just gotten home after a long stay at his parents' house dealing with this, and he is physically and emotionally wrecked by the situation but did want to talk to me (partly to vent/seek advice and partly to get back on schedule). He and I talked later that day, and since he's coming back up to my neck of the woods AGAIN this weekend (his brother is being discharged from the hospital) he's going to come by my place for a couple-three hours tomorrow so we can plan and create a schedule. He said he is DESPERATE to get back to work on this - he needs a break from the family situation and he also needs to set boundaries with his parents, who are actively hindering his brother's mental health by living in denial about it (even with an extended hospitalization).

Lots of sad stuff here (my moving away included) but it looks like we're gonna get back on track and get this done by our target deadline. I want to thank you all for your advice and compassion here.
posted by nayantara at 12:25 PM on May 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

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