A friend of mine recently shared his happiness that he and his wife had a long overdue conversation. However, when he described it to me, I realized that they had not had a conversation at all. They had had a fight. A conversation consists of two people expressing themselves and listening to one another. A fight, on the other hand, doesn’t involve any listening. Ears and hearts shut down during a fight. How many parking lot brawls end in mutual understanding? As soon as one person feels attacked (whether that was the intention or not), walls go up and self-defense becomes the order of the day. Pretty soon you have two enemies with drawn swords whacking away at one another’s raised shields. No one hears a thing.
The way to get your message across is to keep a conversation from becoming a fight. And the best way to do that is to avoid attacking the other person. It is even possible to reverse-engineer a fight back into a conversation by putting down your own sword so the other person can put down theirs. Your own vulnerability is an invitation for someone else to hear what you are saying. Here are three, practical strategies for that kind of real communication.
1. Talk about your own feelings. When a difficult conversation arises, it is natural to frame your communication in terms of what that other person has done, using the word, “you” repeatedly. “You make me so mad!” or “You always…” Even the details of an incident can feel like an attack using that language: “And then you…” Instead, it is a much better idea to talk about your own feelings. You are the expert on you, so no one can tell you that you are wrong. In addition, sharing your feelings draws the other person in rather than putting them on the defensive. For example, “Right now I’m feeling very alone,” or “I wanted to tell you how embarrassed I felt at dinner last night.”
2. Ask good questions. Rather than making statements which often involve assumptions about the other person’s motivations or actions, try asking questions. For example, instead of saying, “You never introduce me to any of your friends,” you might try, “Did you notice that I was feeling left out of the conversation with your friends back there?” If you can ask a question which goes deeper than the circumstances, go for it. For example, “Does it make you uncomfortable when Jan comes over?” instead of, “You always head for the golf course when Jan comes over.”
3. Invite the other person to a better outcome. Instead of keeping the conversation centered on things in the past, paint a picture of a new and better way of doing things in the future. When you can start a sentence with, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” then you are on the right track. For example, instead of talking about all the times your companion has pulled the same stunt, try saying, “I’m looking forward to the time when we can both enjoy a shopping trip together and neither of us gets upset about anything. What do you think it would take to make that happen?” or “Wouldn’t it be great if we could work together as a team on this?” Your nonverbal communication is important here, too. You communicate whether this is a heart-felt desire or a sneak attack by the tone of your voice and the openness of your face.
Using any one of these three ideas can turn a battle into a dialogue, making self-defense unnecessary and inviting intimacy. However, in the middle of a fight it’s difficult to remember any of these techniques – let alone to use them. Therefore, practice these skills in all your conversations and relationships. Find ways of incorporating them into your personal style. You might enjoy it, and, more important, you might find yourself having a lot more real conversations.
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Prov. 15:1