Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Listen and learn

There is an old saying, "God gave us two ears and only one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk."  I don't know who originally came up with that, but in my experience, it is good advice.

I frequently get to observe the communication process between individuals in a relationship and I am almost always intrigued to discover what their interactions reveal about their relationship.  It doesn't matter what the nature of the relationship is, marriage partners, parent-child, friend, boss-employee... all behavior is communication and it is very revealing if you know what to look for.

When a relationship is in conflict, research indicates that having conflict itself is not an indicator of the health of the relationship, but how each individual conducts themselves in the midst of conflict is a strong predictor of the stability and health of the relationship.  People who have a high positive regard for each other tend to be able to have conflict and still like each other because they aren't cruel to each other during the conflict.  They can disagree without being disagreeable.

Too often, the communication patterns I witness are locked in a pattern where the same arguments are made over and over and the conversation never goes anywhere, except to reinforce the hurt that each individual feels.  I try to coach individuals who are stuck in a situation where there is no traction that they need to spend less attention on what is being said and more attention listening to how it is being said.

Being attentive to the emotions of the other person is a miracle communication tool.  When a person feels like they are being heard and understood, they feel valued.  Conversely, when in an argument and we are more focused on making sure that the other person sees how right our viewpoint is... it is easy for the other person to feel less valued because they don't feel heard or understood.

Daughter: I feel like I have to always walk on eggshells at home because I never know how Mom is going to react.
Mom: She says that I overreact and don't talk to her for weeks, but she ignores the fact that I still do her laundry, I still cook for her, I still work to pay the bills for her computer and her cell phone.  How is that ignoring her?  I give her plenty of opportunities for her to come and talk, but she is always walking away.

 In the above snippet, the daughter is expressing how she feels, putting the mom on the defensive.  Because Mom is more attuned to her hurt feelings, she is unable to acknowledge and validate her daughter's viewpoint.  To be fair, the daughter is doing the same thing (thus the traction-less cycle they are in), but I don't expect the child to be more capable than the adult of being able to control her emotions, it is something I try to teach the parent before I work on the child.  So, I challenge the mom: "Right now, don't focus on whether you agree or disagree with what your daughter is saying, just try to reflect what you think she is feeling.  You may not agree with her, but right now it is more important that she feels that you understand her."  I ask the daughter to restate her last statement

Daughter: Sometimes it feels like no matter what I say or do, you overreact.  I feel like I can't tell you anything because nothing is ever good enough for you.
Mom: (bristling) What do you want me to say to that?  She is just attacking me again!
Jeff: What do you think she is feeling?
Mom: (sighing) She feels like she can't talk to me because I overreact.
Jeff: That is what is happening.  What do you think she might be feeling?
Mom: I don't know?  Hurt?  Frustrated?  Lonely?
Jeff: Okay, how about asking her if she feels those things because of the situation...
Mom: (thinking about the phrasing...) Okay... so... You feel hurt because when you tell me stuff, I blow it out of proportion.  I can see how that could be frustrating.
Daughter: Yeah, it is.  I mean, I used to be able to talk to you about lots of stuff, but lately it seems like you are just looking for something to yell at me about.

And the mom is stunned that her daughter hasn't completely shut down again.  The previous exchange shows how reflecting a person's feelings can help to break the blame and defensiveness cycle and gain some traction in the conversation.  It allows the conversation to move forward. 

It sounds pretty easy, but in practice it is a difficult thing to do, to ignore the gut reaction to respond and tell the person why they are wrong.  Instead, if we can push that instinct back and instead, try to reflect what the other person is feeling, it breaks the cycle of devaluing language and behavior and invites the other person to feel like they are being heard and understood, giving the communication process traction to move forward.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!


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