How to Be Heard When You Talk

With the amount of talking we all do, it would be a good idea to step back and assess how well you think people listen when you are talking. Do you feel heard? Do you think that others value what you have to say? Do you have a voice?

The answer may vary depending on the situation, or on the person you are speaking with. Certainly some people listen better than others, and the depth of a relationship can make a difference. Even so, the question still stands: Do you feel heard?

Whether you answer yes or no, here are some ideas and practices that can help.

#1 Consider the level of receptivity.

You can talk your head off to someone, but if they are not in a place to hear what you have to say, it won’t go in, and might even make things worse.

Before you say something, and especially if that something has any emotional content or could cause a reaction, consider the level of receptivity for hearing it.

How is this person going to receive what you have to say? Are they open to it? What type of reaction is likely?

You may decide not to say it at all, or to revise how you say it to make it more palatable to the person hearing it.

For example, if you give someone advice who doesn’t want it, and who thinks they have nothing new to learn, then your words will fall on deaf ears no matter how you say them. You are also likely to be dismissed, or get an irritable or angry reaction. In this case, there is no receptivity.

But if you are speaking with teachers about new regulations that need to be followed, and you know they are not going to like them, you may gain some receptivity if you first speak to their objections and empathize with their feelings. In this case, you create receptivity by recognizing and validating their point of view, and then working toward a collaborative solution. Here there is a window of receptivity with the right approach.

It’s good to assess whether that window exists before you waste your time and energy.

Sometimes you may not care whether there is a level of receptivity because you feel it’s important to get what you have to say out there. This is especially true when fighting for a principle. Just know that going in.

#2 Be clear.

Make sure that your words actually match the intent of your statement.

If you say to your spouse

“It must be nice to take a nap after dinner every night!”

your words are not really matching your intent. You are angry in this case and object to your spouse taking the nap while you clean up the kitchen and do the dishes. But instead of saying that, you throw out a sarcastic remark that is somewhat hostile and unclear about what you really want.

The direct statement would be,

“I am upset with you taking a nap every night while I wash the dishes. It doesn’t seem fair to me. I think you should help.”

Now your words are clear and match your intent which is to express your frustration clearly, and say what you want.

Words should communicate directly, but when they are used to evoke emotions in the other person (guilt in this case), rather than communicate clearly, the communication becomes muddied and often conflictual. Make sure your words match your intention and state what you want.

#3 Your body language should reflect your words.

This follows with the one above. Along with choosing your words to match your intent, you body language should also reflect what’s being said.

If your daughter is telling you about something exciting to her, and you use words that seem interested like “That sounds really fun!”, but you are typing on your computer, or you are looking elsewhere and obviously have your attention on something else, then your body language says it all. You aren’t really there.

There is disagreement among the experts about just how much impact body language has on communication, but in general it is agreed that it is a significant factor, and often carries more weight than the actual words chosen.

What is important is that your body language is congruent with the words you are using, as well as your intent and motivation for speaking. If any of these things are in opposition to each other, you will create confusion and sometimes even mistrust.

#4 Use emotional word pictures.

“Emotional Word Picture” is a concept I borrowed from Steven Scott in his book Mentored by a Millionaire. He defines it like this:

“An emotional word picture is a word, a statement, or a story that creates an instant picture in listeners’ minds that clarifies what you are trying to say and implants a feeling into their emotions.”

I could talk to a group of educators about the importance of children getting exercise outside and lay out all of the statistics and research that has been done on the subject. But if I really want to get their attention, I could create a picture and remind them of what it was like to be outside as a child and play and run around:

“Remember being in the sun and experiencing the motion of swinging on a swing while the air fell across your body each time you swung forward, and hearing the sound of the other kids playing next to you that made you feel included and safe? Or taking in the scent of freshly mowed lawns, or feeling the rush of dizziness on the merry-go-round, or playing kick ball, or just lying on your back and looking up at the sky?”

You get an immediate visual and memory of your own experiences outside as a child and the feelings you had. It becomes personal. That word picture has a far greater impact than any amount of statistics you might hear about the value of outside exercise for kids.

When you bring up memories or create pictures through stories or sensory experiences, you create an emotional impact and response that has direct meaning, and this creates greater interest and understanding

#5 Ask for clarification.

Never assume you know exactly what someone means when they are talking. You may know them well and be on the mark, but it’s always safe to ask questions for clarification and repeat back what you understand them to be saying.

That way, they feel understood and heard, and you will be clear on what was said and meant. That puts you in a much better place to respond. It also creates cooperation, even if there is a dispute, because you are showing respect.

#6 Listen with true interest and an open mind.

This is a big one. In order to be heard, you have to also be a good listener. People will instinctively ascribe more power to your words if they feel you are interested in them, and interested in what they have to say.

To listen with interest, it is important to turn your attention completely toward the person speaking. This means putting down your phone or clearing any other distractions that are in the way, and looking at them directly with an attitude of open attentiveness. Your body language should say,

“I’m here, I’m listening, and I’m interested in what you have to say.”

The second part of this is to listen without interrupting. Your goal should be to hear the other person out and seek to understand what they have to say and what they mean. All of this should occur before you respond, even if your thoughts are in opposition to theirs.

You can show real interest in understanding someone’s point of view even when you disagree with it. That interest conveys respect. It shows that you value their right to have an opinion or to have their own thoughts.

When listening, adopt the attitude of a detective who’s trying to find out the facts. Always keep in mind that listening and understanding do not mean agreement. But there is no value in jumping to a defense. If you feel you need to defend, you will be much more powerful if you first show true interest in understanding how the other person thinks and feels.

#7 Use “I” messages.

Instead of “You make me so mad!”, you can say “I really get mad when you (whatever it is)!” That’s a subtle shift in semantics, but it makes a difference. When you start the sentence with “You”, the immediate result will be a defense. When you start with “I”, the other person won’t feel attacked. It’s a matter of taking responsibility for your own reactions and feelings.

#8  Avoid all-or-nothing statements.

Avoid using words like always and never.

“You’re always late.”
“You never pay attention to me.”

These statements are exaggerations and they will create a conflict right out of the gate.

If there is a pattern of behavior you want to point out, you can do so without using all or nothing words. You can say,

“I see that you didn’t brush your teeth this morning before you left for school. I’ve noticed this has happened a number of times lately. Let’s figure out what to do about it.”

You’ve indicated the pattern, but you didn’t say, “You never brush your teeth before leaving for school.” If you had said that, your child would react immediately to the word “never” and start defending.

All or nothing words usually bring on a defense. Good to avoid them.

#9 Consider your listener’s biases and feelings.

This goes along with receptivity levels, but it indicates a little more. Specifically, it is a good idea to know your listener’s biases, especially when you are conversing about something that is a hot topic.

If you are talking to a largely conservative group of people who have strong religious leanings, then throwing out curse words as part of your conversation isn’t going to go over well. They will hear those words more than what you have to say, and they won’t be receptive because you have rubbed up against their value system. They may even be offended.

You can get across your point of view best if you are aware of the emotional pulse and values of the people you are speaking to.

You would address a group of single moms differently than you would a group of business executives. You might get the same information across, but your approach would be different because you would couch what you had to say in terms that make sense to the biases or interests of those two very different groups.

#10 Speak with confidence.

There is a difference between confidence and arrogance. Arrogance is self-serving and has an air of dismissiveness. Arrogance is usually hostile, even if the hostility is subtle. It has a one-up or “I know more than you” feel about it.

Confidence exudes strength, but is inviting all at the same time. Someone who speaks confidently is interesting, and draws us in. We know where they stand, but also feel they are receptive to us. You can be confident and humble at the same time.

Confidence is inclusive. Arrogance is exclusive.

Be confident in your delivery. You may make a mistake, change your mind, or modify your thoughts as you go, but you can still be confident in your ability to think, communicate, and understand.

#11 Be authentic and sincere.

Be real. Speak from your heart, say what you mean, and be yourself.

This sounds like a no-brainier, but is sometimes quite hard. We live in a very faddish culture, and it’s easy to get caught up in fitting in the group you are hanging with. Entrepreneurs have a particular language. Psychologists have a different language. Parents have yet another language.

You can use the idiosyncratic language of your group, but be careful not to succumb to becoming someone you’re not just to fit in.

The most compelling communication is authentic and sincere, and we can feel that on a subconscious level almost all the time. You know when someone is faking even before you think it. And you will listen to someone who is sincere more readily than someone who isn’t.

Authenticity and sincerity build trust immediately, and initiate receptivity. Inauthenticity feels like manipulation.

# 12 Avoid the Big 5.

The Big 5 are :

  • Preaching
  • Condescension
  • Criticism
  • Scorn
  • One-Upping

No way no how, because all of these destroy communication and will turn the listener away. Just looking at those words brings up a negative reaction, right?

All of these approaches either involve talking “at,” not “to” someone, or make the other person feel less than or unworthy. These are communication barriers that should be avoided at all times.

There you have it. What are your thoughts on good communication practices? What works and what doesn’t? Leave a comment.

The “Yes But” Syndrome

A friend asks you for advice about a problem she’s having, and every suggestion or idea you offer is met with “Yes, but that won’t work for me because . . .”

You’ve had the experience? I’m sure you have. I think we all have. Sometimes it happens in a one on one situation with a friend or colleague, and sometimes in a bigger arena like at a meeting at work where there is a brainstorming session to help solve a problem, and the suggestions are shut down as fast as they come up.

The “yes but” syndrome is fear in disguise. Fear of stepping out of your comfort zone, fear of trying something new or different, fear that the problem won’t be solved and so you prevent it from being solved, or fear of success in some cases.

So how do I handle it?

If you are dealing with a chronic offender, who regularly shuts you down as you are offering your best ideas, then don’t bother. It’s not worth your time or energy. You can either avoid those situations or call them out if you feel it’s worthwhile to do so.

If the person in question is someone close to you, you could gently observe back to him what’s happening. “I notice that as I give you my ideas or advice, you tell me pretty quickly why none of them will work. Are you aware of that?”

This can be helpful if you are not angry in your delivery, and if the person in question is not prone to being defensive. It can backfire, so you may want to weigh it out a bit and decide if you feel the outcome will be positive or not.

Are you a “Yes But” person?

If you find yourself lapsing into the “yes but” syndrome, then take a step back and readjust your mindset. Get yourself into a brainstorming mode. That means taking in all of the ideas offered without making any immediate judgments. Let them sit in your mind awhile and then sift through them to see what might work and what might not.

Here’s some tips to avoid the “yes, but”:

1. Listening doesn’t mean agreement.

Hearing new ideas doesn’t mean that you have to accept or use them. It just means that they are possibilities that could be helpful. Just take them and add them to the list of possibilities. No further action is required until and unless you decide to act on any of them.

2. Have an open mind.

In most cases, there is more than one solution to a problem or more than one way to look at something. Open yourself up to hearing as many possible ideas or solutions as you can without making immediate judgment on what will work. Avoid censoring. Your goal should be to hear as many possibilities and solutions as you can and just list them in your head, or on paper, for future consideration. You’re not making decisions right now.

3. Allow time for decisions.

When you hear new ideas or someone offers a solution to a problem that seems kind of “out there,” the default reaction is to dismiss it. This is a mistake. Sometimes those ideas end up being the best solutions. Take everything in and then let it sit. Our minds can work wonders if we allow the time necessary for all of the connections and patterns to come together to give us answers. You know how sometimes you struggle with a problem and then you sleep on it, and the answer appears in the morning? That’s because the subconscious is working for you and connecting the dots you couldn’t see initially. Allow time if you can before making snap decisions.

4. Check your fear at the door.

Fear is our worst enemy. It can be subtle. If you have a problem that feels urgent, you can become afraid that no solution will appear, and so you shut down any possibility without real consideration. You may also be afraid of branching out and trying something new. Actually, this occurs a lot. People love their comfort zones, even if they are constricting or dysfunctional. Ask yourself if fear is keeping you from hearing or trying different solutions that could be effective for you.

5. Identify your comfort zones.

I alluded to this one already in the one above, but it bears a little more attention. It is very useful to really take a look at comfort zones. People’s natural tendency is to stick to patterns they’re used to, even if the patterns are not healthy. You’ve heard of the lottery winner that ends up going broke. He was used to being poor and so unconsciously recreated that situation even when having the opportunity to be rich for a lifetime. His comfort zone was struggling with money.

When you find yourself using “yes, but”, and especially if you use it often, ask yourself what comfort zone you are protecting. Just because you’re used to something doesn’t make it good. You won’t change, however, until you identify the problem and make a conscious decision to change it.

What are your comfort zones?

How to Deal with Quicksand Conversations

Have you ever been in a conversation where each new statement that is uttered leaves you feeling like you are sinking further and further into quicksand? Most everyone has. As you say something, the other person responds in a way that seems to totally miss what you were trying to get across, and the more they say, the more the whole conversation becomes muddled. Finally you just give up because you can’t tell what’s going on anymore, and it becomes clear that there isn’t a remote chance that any real communication is going to take place.

The reason this happens is because at least one person in the conversation is not using words to actually communicate. They are using words to “evoke” emotions or feelings in the other person, and the words they use may have nothing to do with the subject at hand. This is called “evocative communication.”

Let’s backtrack a little so you can get a good grasp on how this works. There are two basic types of communication, which are called communicative and evocative.

Communicative Communication

Communicative communication is straightforward meaning that the words that are being used match the message the person is trying to relay. The content of the message is clear in the words, and there are no hidden meanings. You don’t have to guess about what is being said. It’s straight up.

The intention behind this type of communication is to create understanding between those sending the message and those receiving the message. The mood is collaborative and the goal is to be clear. I say something to you in the hopes that you can really understand what I’m thinking, and we can be on the same page, at least in the sense of both knowing what we are talking about. This is true even if we don’t agree on a point. We will both understand what’s being said and we both want to know what the other thinks. With communicative communication, words are used to create understanding, collaboration, and respect.

Let’s take an example. A woman says to her husband:

“I am really upset about something. It seems that most nights, I cook dinner, clean up, supervise the kids’ baths, and get them to bed. After dinner, you get settled on the couch and watch TV. I don’t think this is fair, and I am beginning to resent it. I would like us to both participate in the evening chores until they’re done so that we can both have relax time.”

That’s clear isn’t it? The problem has been stated, the feelings about the problem have been expressed in “I” statements, and a solution has been offered. Even if the receiving partner doesn’t agree, which would be the husband in this case, the communication has been clear. He knows what his wife is upset about, how she feels about it, and what she wants from him to resolve the problem.

Evocative Communication

Now for evocative communication. In this type of exchange, words are not always directly related to the real intention of the statement. Someone makes a statement that has uncomfortable feelings attached to it and is indirect. You respond to what you think has been said, and they say something back that twists your words in a way that almost accuses you of saying something else, or saying something negative, or what they say doesn’t seem to really respond at all to what you said. The subject is changed, the words take on a very emotional tinge, and the more you try and return to your original point, the more skewed the conversation becomes until you don’t know what’s going on at all.

What you do know is that the feeling is uncomfortable, and often antagonistic, upsetting, or even angry. You heard a statement which you interpreted based on the words used, but somehow the meaning has become very unclear and you find yourself in verbal quicksand. The more you talk, the worse it gets. You can end up feeling accused, misunderstood, manipulated, and at a loss as to where to go from here. With evocative communication, words are not used to promote understanding or consensus. They are used to produce a feeling state in you that in most cases is very uncomfortable.

Back to our example. The wife in this case says:

“It must be nice to plop on the couch and watch TV whenever you want.”

Sarcastic for sure, and unclear. She hasn’t mentioned anything about the chores not being divided up equally, or about feeling resentful that her husband isn’t helping her. She has thrown out a sarcastic remark intended to produce feelings of guilt, but the exact reason she is upset is not all that clear. The husband is left with trying to figure it out. He may respond with, “Well, I’ve worked all day and I’m tired. Aren’t I entitled to a little relaxation?” She may come back with, “Everything’s always about you. You, you, you!” He may say, “I don’t really understand what you’re so upset about?” She may say, “That’s the problem. You don’t think about anyone except yourself.”

We can keep going, and as you can see, the conversation will stray further and further away from what is really bothering her. Not only that, it has now become very generalized and personal. The husband is confused, hurt, and feels attacked, and the wife is more resentful than ever because she feels he not only doesn’t understand her, he doesn’t care.

This kind of communication is like quicksand. The more you struggle to get on the same page, the further down you sink. It occurs more often in intimate relationships, but it also can occur at work or in a more benign situation with someone you don’t know well. It is most powerful and difficult to deal with when the person who uses the evocative approach is in a position of power such as a boss, a parent, an elder, a teacher, etc. It is also difficult in an intimate relationship such as a marriage or couple.

The hallmark of evocative communication is that the message or messages sent by the person who is using that mode of communication are meant to make the other person feel something that is emotionally uncomfortable. The feeling and intent may be more obvious as in the case I described above where the primary emotion is anger or antagonism, or may be much more subtle where the person is seemingly calm and smiling while delivering words that make you feel small, less than, incompetent, stupid, dismissed, demeaned, and the list goes on. What stands out is that the communication creates an emotional response in you that ultimately feels bad or confused.

Conversely, when you are involved in a “communicative” conversation, you have a positive emotional response even if the other person is not in total agreement. You feel respected, valued, smart, accepted and equal to the other person. No one is “one upping” the other person, and no one is provoking a conflict.

In short, evocative communication is used to discharge emotions and communicative communication is used to create and foster understanding while imparting information. Two very different types of communication.

What To Do When Someone Uses Evocative Communication

As soon as you realize that the conversation is becoming emotionally tinged and you can’t tell what’s going on, it’s best to stop talking about the subject you originally started with and instead comment on the emotional response from the other person. Back to the example where words are being used to produce guilt, the husband in this case might say,

“I can see you are upset about me watching TV right now. What exactly is bothering you? Have I hurt your feelings in some way?”

That kind of attention to the person’s feelings will help diffuse the uncomfortable emotion and open the way for a real conversation. In essence, you invite the person to tell you what’s really wrong by noticing their emotional state and showing that you care about how they are feeling. This doesn’t mean you are going to agree with what they say, but it will put the conversation back on track using communicative rather than evocative communication.

Sometimes even this will not work and the person becomes defensive or denies that anything is wrong in which case there is nothing you can really do, but at the very least you have stopped the quicksand conversation that was spinning out of control.

There are people who are unwilling to have conversations where consensus is reached. Their primary motive is to disrupt, create distance through antagonism and conflict, and discharge negative emotions. Usually people with that communication style have conflicts with many people and you may want to just steer clear. It is not possible to have a real communicative exchange with someone who is not willing to participate.

To review in shorthand, here are the characteristics of communicative and evocative communication:

Communicative Communication

  • Creates consensus
  • Is characterized by respect and empathy
  • Fosters connection
  • Delivers an exchange of information
  • Produces clarity and understanding
  • Ends on a positive note, even when there is disagreement on the subject

Evocative Communication

  • Creates disagreement
  • Is characterized by covert accusation, disrespect, and lack of empathy
  • Fosters separation
  • Obstructs information exchange
  • Produces confusion and misunderstanding
  • Ends on a negative note with no agreement on any point

What’s Your Style?

(1) Try watching your conversations over the next week with everyone with whom you speak and see if you can identify when evocative communication is being used.

(2) Try watching your own language in conversations and evaluate for yourself when you are using communicative language and when you are using evocative language. Okay, don’t pretend now that you don’t ever use evocative communication.:) We all do. It’s just a matter of how much and how well we can identify and correct it.

(3) When you catch yourself using evocative communication, think about why. What are you trying to gain from the other person? What’s the real purpose of it? Can you get what you want by being more direct and clear? Are you afraid of something or avoiding something?

(4) Practice using “I” messages when talking about emotional issues. This means that instead of saying “you make me feel . . . .”, you say “I feel (whatever the feeling is) when you . . . .” Always stay away from accusation. Own your own feelings, but be clear about what they are and directly communicate them. It is impossible to really have an information exchange if there are unresolved feelings that are not communicated directly. They will get in the way.


Note: I first came across an explanation of communicative and evocative communication from Charles Sarnoff who has written some excellent books on children’s therapy. In particular, Psychotherapeutic Strategies in the Latency Years, (Jason Aronson, Inc., 1977) stands out. It is a book primarily for clinicians, but you may find it of interest particularly if you work with children ages 6 to 11.

How to Deal With an Angry Person

Can you guess what the worst thing is to say to someone who’s angry?

CALM DOWN!

Unfortunately, that is everyone’s first instinct and often is exactly what is said. The intention is good. You know that if the angry person can calm down, then it’s possible to talk about the issue at hand and maybe resolve it. The problem is that when you say “calm down”, it just makes them angrier.

Here’s why. Being told to calm down when you’re upset or angry actually sends another message, which is that your feelings aren’t really valid, or they’re over the top, or worse, that there’s something wrong with you. The message is “Get rid of the feeling.”

Saying “calm down” is like pouring lighter fluid on a fire.

In order to get to a place where you can have a more reasonable discussion and come to a resolution, you have to first connect with the person and at the same time diffuse the anger. Here’s how.

Connect

Say something that recognizes how the person is feeling, and say it with no judgment.

“I see that something has really upset you.”

This statement connects with the feeling, but also does a good job of not blaming the person for having the feeling. If you said instead, “I see you’re really angry,” you may still connect, but you’ve laid the emotion on the person rather than on the situation.

Try and keep the connecting statement geared toward observing the problem and not making a statement about the person. It’s hard sometimes to do that, especially if the person is rancorous, but keep in mind that underneath most anger is the feeling of helplessness, and if you can join with the helplessness feeling, the anger will soften.

Diffuse

You’ve said, “I see that something has really upset you.” Now follow that with a question that invites the person to tell you about it:

“What happened?” or “What’s causing you to feel that way? I’m all ears,” or “I’d really like to understand.”

Give them a chance to unload. Let them tell you what’s bothering them, even if they deliver it rather emotionally. As they talk, keep up your questions and repeat back to them what you think they’re saying so they feel really understood. You will know it’s working when the anger begins to subside. They will begin to see you as an ally rather than as someone to target.

Resolve

Once the anger has subsided and the other person feels understood and heard, you now have a chance to talk about how to resolve the problem.

If the problem directly involves you, you can say how you feel about the situation. You may also have learned something while listening that will give you some ideas about how to negotiate or come to a compromise.

If you find that you have become too angry in the process of listening, then take a rain check on the discussion. Say that you understand their point of view very well now, but you need more time to think about what they’ve said.

Problems don’t always need to be resolved on the spot. It is fine to have a discussion about something that is difficult to resolve over a period of days. The important point to remember is that you cannot solve a problem when you or the other person is too angry, nor should you try.

If the original problem is not about you, then ask if the other person would like advice or not, or if they really just needed to vent. Don’t give advice unsolicited.

In a Nut Shell

People mostly become angry when they feel helpless, misunderstood, taken advantage of, are afraid, or feel criticized. Often, they anticipate that they won’t be heard. You have to deal with these feelings before tackling the real content of the problem. Remember the 3-step process:

  • Connect with an empathetic statement.
  • Diffuse by questioning, listening and repeating back what is said to show understanding.
  • Resolve when the anger is diffused and there is a feeling of being on the same side.

When You Shouldn’t Try This Process

When dealing with someone that has the potential to be violent or abusive, then it may not be wise to attempt to talk to them when they are very angry. Someone who is in a rage is not always amenable to attempts to diffuse their feelings, even if done in a reasonable way. In those cases, you should step out of the conversation and make yourself unavailable as soon as you can. If you are in a relationship with someone like that, or live with someone who has rage reactions often, you should seek counseling.

Listen Up!

One of the biggest complaints that comes up in counseling with couples is the listen vs. fix-it conflict. Actually, it doesn’t just apply to couples, but to any interaction where one person is venting about something and the other person is listening.

I say listening loosely here, because in many instances, the person on the receiving end is not really listening, but is trying to fix the situation.

The best way to avoid this problem is simply to ask the person who is venting if they are looking for advice or help in solving the problem, or they just want someone to listen.

If they choose the latter, then it’s time for you to sit back and listen attentively until they are finished. Sometimes when the venting winds down, then the person may solicit advice, but not always, and if not, don’t give it.

Here’s How to Listen Effectively

ATTEND

Start with an empathetic observation or statement based on what’s presented to you to show that you (1) care, and (2) understand the person’s distress. Make it short and genuine. “You look sad. What’s going on?”

INVITE

Extend an invitation to continue. Make good eye contact, and say something along the lines of “I’d like to hear about it,” or “I’m all ears.” This creates some room in the conversation and allows the other person to relax into what they have to say with confidence that you really are present and attentive.

REFLECT

As the conversation unfolds, make comments that show you understand what’s being said, and ask questions to get more detail if necessary. The goal here is just to really understand what the other person is thinking and feeling. Comments can be very minimal during this part of the conversation. Say just enough to show that you get it.

CONTAIN

Containing takes place at the same time that reflecting is going on. Emotions are transferable, so as someone speaks or vents, the emotions they feel are also felt by the listener. As the listener attends, reflects, and is quietly present while the other person speaks, the listener shares in containing the emotions that are felt by the speaker.

A lot of what goes on in psychotherapy is that the therapist contains the client’s emotions for them so that they can safely discharge them and work them out. The therapist’s strength in dealing with the emotions is transferred back to the client.

The idea is “If she can stand the feelings, then so can I.” Same thing happens on a more limited basis when you listen to someone talking about something that has a strong emotional edge to it. You feel with them, and help contain the emotion. Your strength transfers strength back to them.

FIND A SOLUTION (Optional)

Finding a solution only occurs if the person speaking asks for help in doing so. Sometimes the initial desire is not to have help in fixing the situation, but after listening takes place and the emotions are diffused, they may ask for an opinion or advice. If so, then give it, but only if asked. When there is no receptivity for fixing, any attempt at it will just create resentment.

What if I Don’t Want to Listen?

If you really don’t want to listen to someone vent about something or talk about a problem, then find a way to get out of the conversation.

There are people who constantly vent. They are what I call professional victims. They see the world as predatory, and they generally don’t take responsibility for their lives, much less their emotions. Listening to a chronic complainer or someone who is negative most of the time is not time well spent – not for you, not for them.

You should not feel compelled to listen in these circumstances. Good listening requires your time and energy, and you can choose when you want to give it.

Things to Remember

  • When listening, don’t interrupt by interjecting your own stories. Good listeners never turn the attention back towards themselves while in the process of attending to someone.
  • Listening is a means of connecting and strengthening a relationship. It is a must for any intimate relationship, and also very useful in work situations.
  • Listening should be genuine and not done for purposes of manipulation later on.
  • Listening puts room into intense emotional situations, and reduces anxiety.
  • If you can really adopt the attitude of being a listener, it makes conversations much easier and you will find that you have more connection with others, not to mention, you will learn a lot!

If you are a parent, you might enjoy my article at thesuccessfulparent.com called “Just Listen.”

To Give Advice . . . or Not!

Giving advice is a tricky proposition. Given for the right reasons under the right circumstances, advice is very beneficial and can help someone to solve a problem. Good advice is a tremendous aid to getting unstuck. It allows us to gain knowledge we don’t have from someone who’s in the know. It can widen our view of a problem and lift us out of tunnel vision. It can broaden our perspective, and conversely help us narrow in on the real issues to address. Advice can be wonderful!

Unfortunately, advice can also feel like a put-down, a one-up, a criticism, or a personal affront. Given for the wrong reason or under the wrong circumstances, advice is a negative experience for the receiver, and does not help to solve a problem. It can make things worse instead of better.

How Do I Know When to Dive In?

To avoid giving advice in the wrong way, and to make sure that the experience is positive and helpful, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.

Were you asked?

Were you asked for advice or did you just decide to give it? It’s not always wrong to offer advice that wasn’t requested, but most times it is received more readily if requested.

The rule of thumb here is don’t offer if not asked.

This is especially true if the nature of the advice or subject matter has an emotional component to it. A good example would be relationship advice.

Wait to be asked for advice that has a strong personal component.

That said, simple advice that is offered when someone is struggling with a more non-emotional problem is more likely to be received well.

One of my clients was having problem with an outlet in their bathroom and I offered the advice to look around in the house for all of the outlets with the red switch in it and make sure they were all pushed in. She found one in her garage and Voila! Her outlet worked again. She didn’t ask for that advice, but there was no problem in her receiving it because it had no personal component to it.

On the other hand, if a friend comes to me to discuss a problem with a spouse, I am very careful to listen actively, but not supply advice unless asked. Even then I tread lightly.

What’s your motive?

This one is really important. Often we give advice because we are enthusiastic about showing what we know about a particular subject. That’s fine, again if the advice was requested and what we have to say will be helpful.

It’s not fine if the motive is show off or boost our egos. That’s a really bad reason to give advice and almost always backfires.

Such advice can sound presumptuous, critical, condescending or patronizing. You may get a silent response or a defensive one.

It is really important to make sure that your motive for giving advice is to help; never to show off.

Are you manipulating?

This is a different kind of motive and is generally more calculated. You give advice because you want to convince someone of your point of view.

It’s not wrong to voice your point of view as long as you are up front about it and couch it within terms such as “this is my opinion.”

It is wrong to take advantage of someone’s vulnerability about an issue to drive home your own agenda.

If you’re selling something, then make it clear that that is what you are doing. Don’t hide it under the guise of giving advice.

What’s their motive?

This is a trickier one. Does the person asking really want a solution? It may be that they just want to vent or be heard. It may also be that they’ve already made a decision and they want your confirmation.

People come into marriage counseling sometimes having already decided to get a divorce. They want my advice on whether they should stay together or not. What they really want is to be told it’s okay to go ahead with the divorce.

You can’t always discern what the motive is, but generally you can get a good feel for that as soon as you venture out with a bit of advice. The reaction will tell you if they really wanted it or not, or what it is they’re seeking from you.

In those cases, I usually am up front with my response. I’ll say “It looks like you really just want me to listen and understand your point of view. I can do that.” Or in the case of the couple I just mentioned, I’ll say “It looks like you’ve already made a decision. Is that right?”

If I’m not sure, I might just ask, “I’d be happy to give you advice, but I want to be sure you’d like to hear it and that it will be helpful to you.”

People appreciate that kind of candor. It gives them a moment to think, “Do I really want to hear this?”, and it also gives them an out if they want it.

What’s the level of receptivity?

This is similar to the one above. The question is, does the person really want to receive the advice, and given what you have to say, do you think they will receive it well and make use of it? If not, it is good to go slowly.

Ask if they really would like to hear what you have to say. Is it going to come off as criticism? Is it going to hurt their feelings? Is this someone you know well enough to give this kind of advice?

The basis and level of closeness in a relationship is a consideration. I am much more likely to give personal advice to a family member than to a work colleague I don’t know all that well. My family member won’t feel exposed by the advice because we already know and trust each other. My work colleague might feel overly exposed and want to retreat.

Another way of assessing this is to ask, does the subject matter match the type of relationship we have? A work colleague might easily take in business advice, but not relationship advice. They will ultimately see the advice as invasive even though that was not the intent.

Quick Guide

Here’s a couple of quick guidelines to keep in mind:

  • The purpose of advice should always be to help. No other purpose is acceptable.
  • Confrontational advice rarely goes over well. Be respectful and pay attention to the other person’s feelings as you go. Gauge your comments based on their reactions.
  • Really empathize. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine hearing your advice. Will it help?
  • If you get a defensive response of any kind, you will know that either your delivery is faulty or the level of receptivity is low. Stop the advice and acknowledge that you have said something to make the other person feel defensive. Apologize and move away from giving advice at this point.
  • Your delivery should be kind.
  • If you have other resources that could be helpful to solve a problem, by all means give that information. Don’t hog the stage!
  • Keep your own ego in check.

The Antidote to Being Defensive

Are You Defensive?

So who among us hasn’t been defensive? Don’t fudge! We all have.

Certainly there is a time to defend ourselves, but for the most part, we engage in being defensive when it really doesn’t help our cause.

True defense is different from defensiveness. Being defensive implies that we don’t really feel secure in our own thoughts, actions, beliefs or whatever the challenge may be.

Of course when we feel attacked, it is a natural reflex to defend the fort, but really, how effective are our defensive actions? Usually not effective at all. That’s because as we defend, the other side increases the attack, and we get into a vicious cycle of attack-defend, attack-defend, and on and on with no real resolution and bad feelings all around.

Become an Effective Listener

The best antidote to defensiveness is to employ the total opposite strategy, which is to listen. Not easy, for sure, and it takes practice to get good at it.

Listening diffuses an attack usually quite well. I’ll tell you what to do later on about attacks that can’t be diffused, but for now, let’s just assume the person you are dealing with is not abusive, but is telling you something you don’t want to hear or don’t like and that you think is inaccurate. Moreover, what is being said is bringing about an emotional reaction in you that makes you want to defend.

If there was no emotion involved, then it wouldn’t be a problem and you wouldn’t feel the need to respond.

Defensiveness comes about when it feels personal.

Investigate

So the way to work it is to notice immediately when you feel that emotional response come up from within you, and turn the focus away from defense and toward active listening.

This is difficult, but if you catch it right at the beginning, you can do it and gain control over your emotions and the conversation.

Take on the attitude of being an investigator who is trying to investigate what’s being said or offered up. Take whatever is being said and ask the person to elaborate on it. You do this by asking questions and repeating back what you think is being said over and over until the other person feels totally understood.

A really good statement to get the other person to become a little softer in their delivery is to say, “I really want to understand what you think and feel,” or ” I really want to understand how you see this.”

That lets them know that you are not going to defend, but are going to listen, so they feel less need to be so strong in their delivery. It gives you some breathing room.

An Example

If someone says to me, “You always take over the conversation when we’re talking to our friends,” I’m probably going to feel attacked and hurt. After all, that’s a pretty inflammatory statement which I’m sure isn’t true, right?!

For starters, they’ve pulled the “always” card, which definitely brings on a defense, and the statement itself is on the harsh side. There’s no soft-pedaling. Feels attacking, yes? It does and it is.

However, if I defend with “That’s absolutely not true at all,” or “That’s actually what you do!” or something even more emotionally laden, you know where the conversation is going, don’t you? Yep! Right down the rabbit hole with results that are probably going to take some time to get over and straighten out.

The alternative is to say instead something along the lines of “How so? Could you give me an example? I really want to know what you mean.”

A question that inquires or investigates sets the whole conversation onto another track. You go with it rather than resist it. Tell me more. And then when an answer is given, continue the questioning and comment back always to show you understand what was said.

Back to my example, I might end up saying something like “so you felt like I took over and maybe you didn’t get to say what you wanted . . . ” You go back and forth from asking questions about what is said (the inquiring part), to commenting and clarifying what was said and what was felt (the confirming part).

Isn’t That Just Giving In?

You may be squirming at this point because you’re thinking, “Yeah, and what if they are totally off? Am I supposed to agree with them and isn’t this kind of listening and confirming an agreement?”

No it isn’t. Not at all. The real trick in all of this is to really know and understand that because you investigate what someone else thinks and feels doesn’t mean you are in agreement with them. Far from it. You may agree by the time you’ve heard them out, but you may not, and understanding their point of view does not imply agreement. If you really know and understand this fully, you won’t feel so emotionally compelled to defend right away.

By trying to truly understand the other person’s statement, point of view, and feelings, you will diffuse the attack . . . in most cases.

I say in most cases because sometimes people are simply abusive meaning their intent is be abusive or mean and they are not really interested in being understood or coming to a consensus.

For those folks, it’s best to step out of the conversation altogether and make it clear that although you may be willing to discuss an issue, you will not tolerate being abused.

But What if What They Say is Completely Off?

We still have the problem of correcting what we think is not accurate. Once you have spent enough time listening and confirming what the other person thinks and feels, – and you’ll know when this is, because usually they have become more conciliatory and are no longer on the attack – then you can take the floor and respond to their assertions.

You have listened carefully and feel that everything you’ve heard is not really accurate, so now you can say something along the lines of, “Well I completely understand what you’re saying, but now let me explain it from my point of view.” Then proceed. Stick to “I” statements meaning you talk about what you think and feel, not what the other person is doing or saying.

Back to our original example, after I’ve listened and diffused the attack, I might respond with “although I get what you’re saying and I can see how you might arrive at that conclusion, I just was excited about the conversation and had a lot to say. I certainly didn’t mean to take over if it seemed that way, but I did have points to make and I was going with the flow of the conversation. I will keep in mind what you’ve said, however, in the future. Thanks for the feedback.”

Sounds like eating crow? Not really. You haven’t entirely discounted what’s been said, but you have explained your point of view.

Really, What They Are Saying is Not True!

What if what the other person says is totally off meaning there is absolutely no way what they are saying has any reality to it.

In that case, as you ask questions, be sure to question each premise that comes up. It might be that the other person catches their own mistake.

If not, then when it’s your turn to state your view of the situation, be firm in what you think and how you see it. Agree to disagree if necessary, but thank them for being candid.

If the other person has been particularly hurtful in their delivery, you can say it now. “I appreciate you telling me how you feel, but I have to say that the way you said it hurt me.”

Again, if you have given the other person the time and attention to explain their point of view, you are entitled to have their attention to give your side and to let them know how you feel about their delivery if it has been harsh or hurtful.

A note here in reference to couples: Sometimes a dispute may take several days to completely resolve, and a follow-up conversation the next day can be used to iron out the way you speak with each other when there is a hot topic.

Practice Makes Perfect

To get the hang of working on defensiveness, I would suggest trying to cultivate this technique of listening and confirming in situations that are not emotionally charged for starters. Practice it anytime someone is talking to you about something. Ask questions and confirm what you hear them say. It doesn’t need to be overdone, but if you make it a habit, it will be much easier to use when you need it in a more emotionally charged conversation. You will also find that most people appreciate attentive listening. It actually improves communication, creates consensus, fosters intimacy and positive feelings, and makes life more interesting.

Quick Guide

Check Your Emotions

When you are challenged, notice your emotional response and check your reactivity before it escalates.

SELF-TALK:

“I don’t like what I’m hearing and I can tell I’m getting upset, so I’ll take a deep breath and move toward investigating instead of reacting.”

Investigate

Begin the question and answer process. Make sure to ask, then clarify what you’ve heard, and confirm the feelings coming from the other person.

SELF-TALK:

“My goal here is to completely understand his point of view. It doesn’t mean I agree. I’ll have my turn soon enough.”

Wait for an Energy Shift

Wait until you feel the emotional energy has changed and the other person is no longer on the attack. Summarize what you’ve heard and set the scene for your response.

SELF-TALK:

“I feel the shift and now I need to make sure I completely understand everything that’s been said. I can respond in a moment.”

Assess the Truth

Assess and respond.

SELF-TALK:

“Was there anything accurate to what was said? If so I will own up to it. Otherwise, I can now respond, but I will continue to keep my emotions in check.”

Respond Appropriately and Respectfully

Use I statements, notice the level of receptivity, and agree to disagree if there is no consensus.

SELF-TALK:

“I am happy with the way I am handling myself. I am being respectful while stating my case. I am not so rigid that I can’t see when I am in error, but I also am able to be firm in my point of view.”

Always and Never

You probably know what I’m going to say from reading the title before I even begin. I say that because I think we’re all familiar with using the words “always” and “never” to describe something, and especially when we are describing someone else’s behavior. “You always leave your clothes on the floor in your room.” “You never admit that you’re wrong. NEVER!” “She always dresses impeccably.” “He never eats meat.”

Some of the above statements may be true, especially the last one when talking about a vegetarian or vegan. The other three statements, however, are likely exaggerations. There may be a lot of truth in each of those statements, but it is unlikely that they are true all the time under all circumstances. The question then is whether they are harmful, and to this I would say a resounding “yes!”

When you tell someone that they always or never do something, they will most likely have an immediate defensive reaction to the statement just based on the all or nothing quality of it. If the statement is positive, they may feel flattered and like it, but the problem with all or nothing positive statements is that people can feel like they now have something to live up to and there can be an associated anxiety that comes along with the flattery. If the statement is negative, the defensive reaction will be direct and obvious in most cases. The usual response is “No I am not!” or “No I do not!” or “No I did not!” or “That’s just not true!” I’m sure you can think of some other responses that are similar, and maybe with a little more colorful language!

What happens in these situations is that the attention moves away from the issue at hand to a reaction to the use of the words always or never. You lose the intended meaning, and also lose the opportunity at that moment to resolve the problem if there is one. You may even create a new problem altogether.

More importantly, it really isn’t fair to characterize someone or someone’s behavior in an exaggerated fashion. It can feel critical (if negative) or overly complimentary (if positive). Either way, the sense of what’s real is lost and instead of the focus being placed on the behavior itself, it’s placed on the value of the person. There’s a big difference between the two, and the repercussions of commenting on someone’s sense of self in that way can have lasting effects that are not really intended.

A Better Approach

So what to do instead? Make your statements as accurate as you can by focusing on the specific behavior at hand. Secondly, state your reaction from an “I” place rather than a “You” place. Let’s go back to the four statements we started with above.

Statement #1

“You always leave your clothes on the floor in your room.”

Change to: “Your clothes are on the floor in your room. This has happened before and I have spoken with you about it more than once. Clearly we do not have the problem solved. What would you suggest we do to change it?”

If you are really upset about it because it’s an ongoing problem, you can add a feeling statement like:

“I am quite upset about this because it has happened a number of times and my bringing your attention to it has not resulted in changing the situation.”

This way you have made your feelings clear and focused on the behavior at hand without levying a personal criticism. You’ve also set the scene for how the conversation should proceed from here, which is to find a resolution to the problem.

Statement #2

“You never admit that you’re wrong. NEVER!”

This is clearly a statement of extreme frustration and comes from exasperated attempts to get the other person to see your point of view and recognize that they cause you distress. The problem is that once you use the word “Never,” and especially in such an emphatic way, the other person will most likely dig their heels in and refuse to give you an inch in the conversation. The best approach here is to be more directly honest about how their behavior affects you rather than accuse them of something. Redirect your anger and use it to communicate your feelings, whatever they may be. Example:

“I don’t feel heard. I am pointing out something to you that has hurt (or frustrated, or upset) me. Do you understand what I am saying to you?

Then wait for the other person to restate back to you what’s been said. If they don’t say it back accurately, continue to correct it until they can say they understand what you’ve said even if they do not agree. This doesn’t mean it will work, but what won’t work is an accusation that is exaggerated. There is no chance of communication under those circumstances. The point is, stick to the current situation without bringing in other past situations, use “I” statements, and report your own feelings as accurately as possible without personal criticism.

Statement #3

“You always dress impeccably.”

You might ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” Probably not a lot, but you do run the risk when you give someone an “always” compliment that you set in motion a feeling that they must now always reach the bar you have set. Better statement would be:

“You are so impeccably dressed today. I admire your outfit.”

Now you’ve offered a sincere compliment, but without any hidden expectations for the future. The person on the receiving end can feel good about being noticed in such a positive way and they may want to dress that way again, but there is really no unintended expectation that they should always dress that way.

Statement #4

“He never eats meat.”

This is the only statement that is most likely true if speaking of a die hard vegetarian or vegan. Even so, I think a better statement is:

“He doesn’t eat meat.”

The reason is that it again avoids setting a bar or expectation. It is really stating a value that pertains to a behavior, and leaves open the door as to whether the person wants to deviate from it. There is no demand implied, but rather a descriptive observation.

Quick Guide

So to sum up, here are the main points to remember:

  • Avoid the use of “always” and “never” when speaking about someone ‘s behavior. That includes your own.
  • Use “I” statements to express your feelings about someone’s behavior instead of “You” statements.
  • Focus on the behavior, not the person.
  • Stick to one subject or one behavior. Bringing up every incident that has happened in the past will only muddy the waters and increase defensive responses.
  • Keep in mind the intended focus of your statements, which is to solve a problem.
  • If all else fails, imagine how you might respond to the same statement.

Consistency is the Key!

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