June 29, 2016
Let’s face it, all couples argue (well, some don’t but they probably don’t communicate much). Typically when we argue we we try to convince the other person that we are right and they are wrong. In doing so we tend not to listen much; instead while the other person is speaking we are thinking up a good come back or a verbal zinger to put the other person in his or her place. Pause for a moment and think about how effective this really has been for you.
Sometimes, along the way, couples escalate and start calling each other names or slinging insults (or even physical objects) at each other. Again, how well does this work? Now maybe you win some battles but you (both) lose in the end. After all, if you care about your partner, and you “win” that means he or she “loses.” Furthermore, when you sling mud during an argument, that needs to be cleaned up afterward.
Could there be a better way? Sure! What people really want when arguing is usually to feel listened to and understood. Sure, we might want our partner to agree with us and do things the way we want, but most of the time if you truly feel understood by your partner, the heat of the argument fizzles quickly and there’s nothing to apologize about afterward.
So how do you do this? As with most skills, it’s a good idea to do skill-building exercises and to practice these exercises. The exercise I’m about to describe is not how people actually talk to each other on a day-to-day basis; it’s an exercise. It’s kind of like a runner who wants to improve her time will do interval training: instead of just going out for a run as she usually does, she’ll sprint from one utility pole to the next one, then rest/jog to the next utility pole, and then run to the next one. If she repeats these “intervals” her running times improve. That said, you’ll never see someone run a marathon alternating between sprinting and walking from utility pole to utility pole.
Oh, another thing about the exercise: it’s frustratingly slow. You’ll likely hate this at first, but the slowness is part of it’s benefit. If you have to argue really slowly, you’re less likely to escalate to yelling.
So here’s the recipe:
Person A: Speak to Person B for up to 30-45 seconds making a simple statement, request, argument, etc.
Person B: Paraphrase in your own words Person A’s statement without introducing new information, interpreting, judging or otherwise modifying the statement.
Person A: Either give a thumbs up to acknowledge sufficient accuracy of the paraphrased response or thumbs down so you can offer clarification.
Person A: If thumbs down, don’t judge how or with whom the communication breakdown occurred; instead, simply restate in different words your main point in 30-45 seconds.
Person B: Paraphrase the restatement.
Person A: Thumbs up or thumbs down
Person B: Speak to Person A for up to 30-45 seconds responding to Person A or making a simple statement, request, argument, etc.
Person A: Paraphrase in your own words Person B’s statement without introducing new information, interpreting, judging or otherwise modifying the statement.
Person B: Either give a thumbs up to acknowledge sufficient accuracy of the paraphrased response or thumbs down so you can offer clarification.
Remember, this is not as easy as it seems, and to become a better arguer you’ll need to become a better listener. The more you listen (and communicate to your partner that you understand him or her), the less you’ll need to argue.
Give it a shot, and like any new exercise routine, don’t give up after one or two tries; instead, commit to practicing this (about real issues, not current events or the weather) for about 10 minutes every day for at least a week straight.
January 2, 2014
I often hear from my patients how busy they, their careers and their lives are. Occasionally, their impatient, abrupt or frankly disruptive behaviors at home or at work are blamed upon simply not having the time to slow down to deal with others more gently or explain things more patiently. In their haste they find themselves bogged down by having to deal with others’ hurt feelings, confusion or seeming incompetence; this, of course, only makes matters worse as they then have to apologize, remediate the situation or reexplain things, all in the context of the limited resource of time.
On the way into work this morning, I heard a great piece on NPR about “scarcity.” The piece compared how poor people often mismanage money (e.g., buying lottery tickets, renting large tv’s, etc) to how busy people often mismanage time. Both groups of people have trouble managing their limited resource. I found this fascinating and directly relevant to many of my patients. I do a lot of psychotherapy and remedial coaching with physicians, other healthcare professionals and executives, and I find that nearly all of them are truly quite busy and they work very demanding schedules. But it never ceases to amaze me how so many of these brilliant people struggle to appreciate the need to devote time to their interactions with other people. I’m not a huge fan of Steve Covey’s “7 Habits” but I love the one where he says, “with people, fast is slow and slow is fast.” You can’t rush relationships. You can’t speed up communications beyond a certain threshold. Instead we need to devote sufficient time to our interpersonal relationships, to nurturing them and communicating effectively within them.