It has been said that the bulk of aggression in the world is the result of poor communication. Sometimes the wrong words are chosen; sometimes the wrong words are heard.
In addition to someone producing a communication and another person hearing that communication, there is another layer: the assumptions we make about what we hear. We assume a certain intent, a possible threat, and then we create stories around what that is going to mean to us – in the future.
Someone once compared this process to looking at a door of a house and imagining all the rooms behind that door, their furnishings, and the activities that take place in those rooms. It’s a lovely creative process, but in communication it is misplaced. We not only set in motion stressful processes that undermine our health and age our bodies, but we set in motion actions that can undermine and even destroy relationships.
Why do we do this? It’s a form of self defense: a pre-emptive strike to protect ourselves against the possibility of threat. It not only doesn’t work, but it may make us feel even more threatened than before. Sharon Ellison, expert on non-defensive communication, www.pndc.com/) notes that confidence, competence, and even the ability to learn diminish after responding in a defensive manner.
Here are some steps to take when a communication seems to be causing you stress:
Pause and consider what the threat seems to be: The pause is important because the urgent feeling that stress produces in us often causes us to take action first, and reflect later.
In your pause, consider how you are feeling. Sad? Scared? Angry? Did you feel your attractiveness or your skills were being underrated because the speaker praised someone else, or offered you some advice? Did you then assume that the relationship was going to proceed, or even escalate, into something even more negative?
Ask yourself if this has happened before, and if so, how often? The more often this same thing has happened in your life, the more likely it is that the challenge is within yourself, not in the other person.
Ask questions to clarify: If someone says, “There’s another way to do that,” and you feel a flash of anger at the implied criticism, you could ask, “Are you critical of the way I am doing this?” You may find that the other person is surprised at the impact of what seemed, to the speaker, to be an informative remark. You can now have a more open discussion about what’s really going on.
Reflect: Ask yourself, “Is this episode worth my attention?” “Is the person or activity important enough to me that I am going to spend time worrying or worse yet, avoiding a situation I might otherwise have enjoyed?”
Communicate/Negotiate: It takes a certain amount of courage to say, “When you said … , I felt…. (sad, angry, depressed, etc).” The other person may be genuinely startled at this revelation, having intended something else entirely.
Ask for the change you would like: “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t criticize me in front of other people. Perhaps you could take me aside and tell me your concerns.”
Take action: Inaction is sometimes appropriate: you decide no action is necessary because it’s not worth the battle or it isn’t high on your list of priorities.
But if the situation is important enough to you, suggest two outcomes: “If you continue to criticize me in front of others, I don’t want to work with you any more. But if you handle it the way I suggested, I would enjoy continuing to work with you.”
Notice that “take action” is the last step. It’s that old problem: the urgency of the stress response. We feel something must be done right now or else … or else what?
We go off and feel less confident, less competent, and even a little stupid? How is this a win?
Instead of creating and furnishing mental “houses” filled with potential strife, save your creative abilities for activities that bring genuine value to your life and to the world.