How we communicate improves or worsens strained relationships. I have heard statements such as those below in couples’ counseling, farm family meetings, business discussions and a myriad of other situations.
Which of the following will contribute most to resolving tension around a financial matter involving a purchase?
A: “You wanted to buy that; isn’t it your responsibility to pay for it?”
B: “You are a really hard worker; I wish I could work as hard as you.”
C: “If you had just told me I wouldn’t be so mad, but you didn’t tell me.”
D: “You are just like your mother.”
E: “What should we do to resolve the situation?”
If you selected E you are correct. We can dissect each statement. Let’s call the speaker “Jack” and the listener “Jill.”
The first statement, A, has some positive features in that it asks a question and perhaps because Jack reminds Jill to take responsibility for her actions. However, Jack tells Jill what she wanted. Jack isn’t a mind-reader and shouldn’t assume he knows what Jill wanted.
The first part of Jack’s statement will make Jill defensive. Then he adds to his provocation by telling Jill her purchase is solely her responsibility. Quite likely, an argument will ensue.
Jack compliments Jill in the second statement, B, which can promote respect, but it also diverts their communication from resolving their tense feelings about finances.
Jack’s admiration of Jill’s ability to work harder than him places Jill in the position of superior responsibility for their situation and suggests he believes he has less responsibility for their finances.
In the third statement, C, Jack blames Jill for making him mad. He is provoking a quarrel. About the only redeeming characteristic of Jack’s statement is that he is suggesting Jill communicate better with him – but his method of suggestion will probably increase the tension between them.
The fourth statement, D, is just plain bad. Jack is labeling Jill as like her mother, not just behaving like her. His taunting sarcasm will likely deter finding solutions. Jill will probably stalk off, yell back or give Jack the silent treatment.
The fifth statement, E, promotes solution-seeking. Jack suggests Jill and he both share in finding a solution to their financial concerns. He is not necessarily saying he has joint responsibility for purchases Jill might make, but he is promising his assistance in figuring out a solution to their financial issue.
Communicating respectfully is a skill that can be learned. Dr. Val Farmer, my predecessor in this column, was particularly adept at helping people learn how to communicate effectively and respectfully. I drew on his Feb. 4, 2002, column for this piece. Val credited Dr. Jack Rosenblum, co-author of several books on couples’ relationships, for some of what I am about to say.
People listen well when they show they care through interest, tone of voice, attentiveness, concern and willingness to help. Don’t interrupt when a person is speaking. After the person finishes, repeat back what you heard to indicate what you understand. Allow the speaker to correct any misinformation and to elaborate further if necessary.
Any two or more people can disagree without being disagreeable. Making a person feel heard is more important than agreeing. Sometimes the most that can be accomplished in a conflict situation is to agree to disagree, and to table the discussion until further time and thought have occurred.
If the discussion has already deteriorated into conflict, acknowledge the subject is too painful to resolve for now. But, do bring up the matter again in a tactful fashion when you and your partner are ready to try to resolve the matter. Not talking about the painful issue usually leads to more resentment.
Offer statements that advance the options to solving a problem and which broaden the thinking about an issue. You can do both yourself, and you can encourage others involved in the conversation to do likewise.
Don’t condemn any statement by showing disgust, anger, sarcasm or blockheadedness. Don’t engage in name-calling, put-downs or statements designed to hurt or throw others off target.
Use “Yes, but” statements, such as “Yeah, I hear what you are saying, but have you considered this?” “Yes, but” statements validate that you heard what the speaker said before you offer an alternative.
Be willing to take turns discussing each other’s concerns. Sometimes you have to temporarily put off an issue you want to air until you have discussed another person’s concern and all are ready to move on. This takes self-discipline, but the skill becomes easier with practice.
Judicious honesty is important in discussing heated matters. Being blunt or critical usually leads to more conflict.
Be sensitive to your partner’s feelings and needs. The old adage is true that “people are more apt to remember how you made them feel, than what you said.”
Send questions to Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D. by email at email@example.com