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Do you have a person (or maybe many people if you are unlucky) in your life that shutdown when you talk to them about seemingly deeper conversations or life advice? They came to you with a decision and you have counterpoints, but they refuse to listen and they “dig in” to their side as a defense mechanism?

Or maybe you have someone in your life who you feel is volatile, unpredictable in their reactions to your comments? Instead of shutting down like the first example, they lash out in aggression or emotions?

I think emotional intelligence is seen as unrealistic when it is the most important thing to grasp as human-beings. It’s what makes us higher level thinkers than animals. These primal reactions and first instincts are the basic animal skills needed for survival. In order to gain happiness, I’m asking that we challenge ourselves to negotiate or re-think our most immediate gut reaction or perception of a situation.

Specifically, there are times when we will see a need to give advice, judgment, or a seemingly related tale of when you went through a similar situation. Our goal stated aloud is to assist, help, relate, or to prevent mistakes. These are called autobiographical responses, according to Dr. Stephen Covey.

“I’m just trying to help.”

However, the way we are providing help is not coming across as help. In fact, our judgments, our personal advice, and our stories are pushing us away from the ones we love, without even trying!

The reason this occurs is that we are relating to them in the only way we know, by speaking from our own experiences and by thinking about how we would conduct the given situation. We’re grabbing on to an idea of “normal” or “correct”, and we are NOT letting go. No matter what. It doesn’t matter if you get upset. You’re just upset because I’m right, and that’s all that matters.

In conversation regarding opposing views, people sometimes can react by withdrawing or with aggression. These two reactions have changed the situation from talking with someone to talking to or at someone. It is no longer a conversation talking to someone who won’t react or is looking to defend or attack.

When it comes to talking to a volatile person or someone who just shuts-down when it seems they don’t want to hear it, the key to conversation is understanding. I’m going to ask that we clear our minds of any preconceived notions of this concept so that we may build a solid foundation for this core of communication. Trust me, if you master this and you are open to its technique, you will be able to talk with anyone. You will be able to get through a disagreement and not regret things that you said. You won’t dwell on what was said. You won’t cry at night because of how the conversation drifted from what you intended. If you’re sick of people “not listening to you”, I’ll share with you some significant strategies to empathetic listening that we can practice. You can’t control others, but you can control your own actions and reactions. 

What are the risks to trying these techniques? They’ll be a little outside your comfort zone, but you’ll gain an understanding of another person and a chance of strengthening that relationship. If that person just won’t listen to you regardless, what have you got to lose?

Fair warning to those who choose to join, you will be opened to a world of discomfort in your past and future interactions. You will need to be open to change and growth as an individual. These concepts will help you better understand what it means to relate to another person. They work well in professional settings and in building relationships; however, past friends are accustomed to your past behaviors and may react adversely to these new behaviors. Practice these behaviors with those who will want to practice with you.

1. Let’s Reflect

Reflect on a time where you were trying to persuade someone or to enlighten someone on possible consequences of their current or potential situation.

Did it go well? If so, why? No…why are you reading this. It sounds like you have it together.

In all seriousness, did it go well in the other person’s perception of the situation as well? Or did they withdraw from the conversation?

Or perhaps the conversation went poorly. First off, I’m sorry. That must have been difficult. What about the conversation was difficult? Were they not listening? Were you told you weren’t listening?

I’ll go over a couple of concepts that we can focus on to help with your situations.

2. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. 

It’s the fifth habit of highly effective people: Seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Dr. Stephen Covey states.

He goes on to describe in detail the basics of empathetic listening in regards to conversations, especially conflicting conversations.

“If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating.” Dr. Stephen Covey

Empathetic listening is listening to someone without reacting personally. It is understanding that what they are saying is not a personal attack, and that they are overwhelmed with an emotion. This concept is mentioned as extremely important in The Power of Empathy by Arthur Ciaramicoli. 

3. Mirroring and Validating

Another vital concept, and sometimes the next step in the conversation is your response. This step is also described in The Power of Empathy. 

Mirroring and validating involves an acknowledgment in the other person’s feelings to provide a foundation of mutual understanding. This creates a closeness by allowing the other person to feel safe in their feelings.

For example, someone might say, “No one cares about me.” You might want to react with “You’re wrong, of course people care about you. How do you think that makes me feel?”

This reaction negates how the other is feeling. Try acknowledging their anger, sadness, or fear as a valid feeling, and remind them that you will be there for them when that feeling subsides.

If you react by becoming upset or negating how they are feeling, they will not trust talking with you because they do not first feel understood. They will not listen to you, because they do not feel understood. And if you are unwilling to understand you, you must be the bigger person in the meantime and return to empathetic listening and refrain from reacting personally. What they are saying is not a personal attack because they are acting in impulsive emotions. The best thing you can do is validate how they are feeling and help they by creating a safe environment for emotions.

Whether it is explicitly or not, try to tell them that you see how they feel.

Explicitly: That must be difficult. I can see you are frustrated. We’ll get through this together.

When someone confides in another about a situation and they take it personally or react adversely, that person will feel misunderstood because they are not trying to offend. They are frustrated, angry, or sad, and by someone taking it personally, they will feel even more frustrated, angry, sad, and now alone.

Try also to refrain from immediately reacting with advice when unsolicited. First seek to understand and to validate.

If you feel like asking questions to further understand the situation, ask open-ended, objective questions. Steer clear of questions beginning with Why. This prompts a defensive reaction.

4. Practice, Reflect, and Repeat

Do people learn how to throw and catch then stop showing up to practices? Do actors look over a script once and then perform the show?

Some do, but you must be different. You must practice these skills with those who will practice with you. Then when you fall into a bad habit, record and reflect on your trigger. What sparked your reaction and how can we better respond in the future? Keep a journal of your progress, recording your successes and your failures.

Reference Material:

Power of Empathy, Arthur Ciaramicoli

Communicating Forgiveness, Vincent Waldron and Douglas Kelley

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone

That’s Not What I Meant!, Deborah Tannen

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey