Photo by ky_olsen
It happened last week. I got into an argument with someone close to me. Very close. Well, that happens frequently enough, but this argument was one of those arguments that quickly became explosive and went to high volume shouting. It has been more than a week since, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.
When I think about it, it still bugs me. I know I was right (what good does that for me now?). I know I was agitated and tired (I was in pain because I had two of my wisdom teeth removed a few days before). I know I was under a lot of stress (the subject of the argument was a document of legal importance). And all of that does not really matter. Because I feel it was a personal failure on my part.
A big part of this blog deals with interpersonal communication. I constantly write about how to manage difficult conversation and conflict. How to ask question and how to give feedback. I know everything (well, a lot) about the methods that should help a person communicate calmly and almost “emotion free”. And still, I failed.
And that got me thinking, if I failed, what chance do people who are not as versed as I am to successfully engage in difficult conversations? After being very pessimistic about this issue for a few days, I finally decided that even the best professionals can fail from time to time. The question is, whether we learn from our mistakes. In addition, none of the methods I write about are bullet proof. We are not robots. For good and for bad, sometimes, our emotions will have the better of us. So, I decided to focus on one issue that I relearned while shouting.
More than anything, when I go over the conversation in my head, I remember saying: “you are not listening to me”. And getting the anticipated response: “you are not listening to me!”. When I give feedback workshops I always advise people to mirror the other side’s behaviors and your own emotions and thoughts! The trouble starts when people try to mirror the other side emotions and thoughts. The problem is that we only have assumptions. Something I read today in an article called: “Too Hot to Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict” by Amy C. Edmondson and Diana McLain Smith in the California Management Review:
The discipline of mapping requires paying strict attention to what people are doing, not why they’re doing it—that is, to the behaviors or actions of the people around the table, not their intentions or motives.
Building on this idea, you can understand why the sentence “you are not listening to me” can be so easily misused. It seems like a behavioral description but it is actually an intention, motive or cognitive description. It suggests that the person in front of you does not understand you or is disrespectful, when it might be that he is actually just trying to get his message across. And what happens when you attempt to tell someone what he is thinking or feeling – he is insulted and reacts, usually passionately, by making similar accusation towards you… and from there… usually all hell breaks loose (as I now know too well).
So, what did I learn?
- We all fail sometimes! The question is whether we learn from it or not.
- Emotions are hard to control, but by being a little more aware of the words we use, we can try and “cool down” any argument.
- “You are not listening to me” is a very dangerous phrase that I, and everybody involved in an argument might want to try and refrain from using.