In difficult conversations, we too often, get stuck in arguing the details yet miss the overall message. As a result, we start arguing about the content and try to “pitch” our story to get the other person to agree or “see the light”. We start to become defense lawyers constantly poking holes in the prosecutor’s story. When our partner says s/he doesn’t like how we spoke to them on Saturday, we respond by saying, “It was Friday not Saturday. In fact, I was nothing but loving to you on Saturday! See how you only focus on the negative?” This response starts with arguing the facts (“It was Friday not Saturday”) then moves to defending (“I was nothing but loving on Saturday”) and then turns the entire blame around and makes the problem the other person (“See how you only focus on the negative”). What?! That is a crazy response to have when your loved one is trying to tell you how hurt they feel. These types of responses are messing up relationships all over the world.
When it comes to communicating about difficult issues and upsets, it behooves you to start paying more attention to the process of how you’re communicating than it is to get lost in the content of what’s being communicated. When we pay attention to the process, the rest of the pieces will work themselves out.
Getting out of the minutia and paying attention to the process requires:
* Getting curious about the other person’s story. Listen with curiosity about what the other person is thinking and feeling about the issue being discussed. Good listening is about walking a mile in the other person’s shoes to try to understand what it’s like for them. Don’t spin it around and tell them what it’s like for you.
* Be respectful ALWAYS. There is nothing you can’t say in a respectful way. Take a breath, cool your head and speak “cleanly” (no character attacks, blaming, name-calling etc.).
* Listen for the truth in what’s being said and leave the exceptions alone. In conversations, learn to lead with agreement not disagreement. Looking for all the pieces that are not true and arguing those is a conversation stopper.
* Be accountable NOT defensive. If someone is upset about something you did or said, listen for the truth in what they’re saying and be strong enough to “own” and acknowledge your mistakes. There are few things more frustrating then living with someone who constantly gets defensive and refuses to take responsibility for their actions. We all make mistakes—learn to own, not defend yours.
* Leave reactivity out of the conversation–no temper tantrums please (that means no yelling, shaming, contempt etc.). People have to be able to have hard conversations with you without you falling apart, blowing up or getting nasty. Part of growing up is learning to work through issues with Grounded Powerful Strength not a childlike aggressive or reactive one.
* Move to solution. Repair what needs to be repaired, ask for what you want, set a limit if you have to and make a plan to do things differently when appropriate.
* Listen for the underlying message/issue/upset rather than getting locked into the pieces you disagree with. Let go of the pieces that are exaggerated while also holding onto the message. If someone tells you you’re “always” angry and you’re no fun to be around, the message is your anger is becoming a problem in the relationship. Don’t get caught up in the word “always” or talk about all the people who love to be around you—that misses the entire message. Feedback is a gift—but only if you’re courageous enough to take it in. Get courageous.
Challenge: If you struggle with communication in your relationship, start paying attention to the process of how you’re communicating and clean that up. Incorporate the principles above and let us know how it goes.