Having a Difficult Conversation Without Engaging in Emotional Warfare – Part II
“I can hear everything you are saying, I’m just not listening.” Does it ever feel like this is happening in a conversation with a loved one? When emotions run high, its common to shut down our rational thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) and instead to begin using more primitive responses pushed by our emotional brain (the limbic system). Beginning and sticking with a non-judgmental, accepting and validating mindset helps immensely when things begin to go “sideways” in a conversation. These 3 attitudes make up the HOW of handling a difficult conversation (see Part I). It also helps to use a specific pattern of communication that helps separate the pieces and parts of a complex message so we can help one another feel heard and understood. This is the WHAT of the conversation: what is said and in what order, to promote a productive exchange.
WHAT. Patterning the interaction in a new way helps break old habits of going back and forth and getting nowhere. One helpful pattern is to separate the content of the communication and to present each content area progressively, beginning with where we can most agree and ending with where we may be the most different from one another. Take turns as the speaker and listener. As the speaker, communicate about the following content areas, one at a time:
1) What are the FACTS? The facts are objective and observable. They can be quantified and measured. If a camera crew filming a reality TV show had been there, this is what would be seen and described. Agreement on the facts is essential. If we don’t agree on the facts, then we should keep talking until we are able to, or explore further why we are not able to do so. Perceptions, feelings and needs do not require agreement in order to be valid so we can allow for difference in all of those categories, but facts must be agreed upon. Here speaker and listener can dialogue until they reach agreement. With the other content areas, the listener can ask questions, as long as the question focuses on what the speaker is saying.
Example: “You often make sarcastic comments about my mother. You have voiced several complaints when she comes to stay for 3 weeks. She is coming at the end of July, which I told you last week. When I told you this, you began screaming.”
2) What are my PERCEPTIONS? My point of view, past history with one another, and my own internal world all shape how I make sense of the facts and the meaning I attribute to them. While we must agree on the facts, our perceptions of the same facts can be quite different, and that is okay. We may not like that someone else doesn’t agree with our perception, and we can (and should!) question our own perceptions, but the fact that there is disagreement on how we understand the same reality is not problematic. Understanding one another is the goal, not agreement. Suspend the tendency to try and persuade the other that your perception is the right (or at least more right!) one. Also, avoid questioning the other’s character or motives when describing perceptions (you could be right, but it will only lead to defensiveness and get the other person off focus of what you are trying to convey).
Example: “When I heard you screaming, I took it to mean you were not happy about the situation and that you were not happy with me, personally. I thought ‘oh dear! I am going to have to choose between my mom being happy and my wife being happy’. I also perceived it as attacking.”
3) What are my EMOTIONS? What feelings did I have at the time or even later when I think about it? Carefully distinguish between a perception and a feeling. We often say “I feel that…” or “I feel like….”; yet statements that begin in this manner are almost always perception or thought statements disguised as feelings. Begin to think of the phrase “I feel…” as requiring an emotion to come right after it. An emotion would fall into a category of happy, sad, angry, lonely, worried, or guilty. If you have trouble recognizing your own emotions, begin with focusing on bodily sensations and describing what you notice. Remember that your goal is to communicate openly what you experienced, not to force the other person have a certain reaction to what you experienced. Just state or explain your feeling without adding “because you…” to the information. If you go through the sequence calmly, the reasons you felt what you did will be clear and the other person has the opportunity to accept any responsibility they want to for what was happening.
Example: “I felt worried and scared and angry all at once.”
4) What are my NEEDS AND/OR WANTS? Since the job of my emotions is to alert me to my needs, I can think about what need is the emotion trying to get me to recognize? We have basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, but also needs for love, acceptance, belonging, safety, agency and other emotional needs. Being able to communicate what your emotion is telling you about your needs is not only powerful, but takes the blame out of the conversation.
Example: “Feeling worried and scared alerted me to my need to feel safe when we talk and my need to feel secure in our relationship. Feeling angry alerted me to my need to feel like I’m important to you.”
Once you have shared progressively, pause and check with the listener for understanding. Maintain your observing, accepting and validating stance as you may need to explain things in a different way for them to be heard effectively.
CALL TO ACTION: Before using this process, take a few days to observe yourself in lots of different settings and see if you can parse out the difference between the facts/observations of what is happening, your perception or meaning of those facts, and the emotions you are having. Try to notice which of these 3 others are conveying when they communicate.