After studying couples and how they fight for over 40 years, John and Julie Gottman can predict with over 90% accuracy that how a conversation starts is how it will end.
When I first heard that piece of research, it literally changed how I taught my classes on conflict resolution and confirmed an abiding practice as a mediator. I start my mediations now with asking disputants what their “best intention” is in having the conversation. I give the parties an opportunity to speak to what positive motivations they may have for the conversation or relationship.
Starting out with a collaborative tone is one of those actions in conflict that can seem obvious, but is oh so hard to do! Most of us, when we are upset by something, want to start the conversation with our upset feelings. We want to “cut to the chase” or “get it over with.”
However, we are all, for the most part, fairly conflict-averse, so any hint of scary conflict coming our way, we shut down. So, starting a conversation by stating how upset you are, is bound to backfire and trigger defensiveness from the other person, even before you get started!
Suggesting you start with a tone of appreciation or with your best intention, is not an attempt to avoid the conflict, be dishonest or manipulative.
It is asking you to be “soft on the person and hard on the problem.” Adhering to that principle will take you far. You cannot influence your foe (if you think of the other person that way) if you’ve alienated them.
So the next time you want to start a conflict conversation, or are faced with one, can you remember tonal harmony? If you can make harmonious music at the start of your conversation, you increase the chances that you’ll end on a positive note as well.
“Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you.” … John Gottman
Archives for December 2019
California has been grappling with large fires. As I write this, Australia is experiencing debilitating fires. That’s what’s on my mind.
Stress levels are going up around the world as we watch helplessly as the world burns. In times of stress, there’s a tendency to blame others. We want simple and direct solutions.
What I believe is we are not going to stop what is happening. But what is happening is going to make it more imperative than ever that we cooperate.
How do you see strengthening community? If it’s to be, it’s up to each of us.
Author and scientist Joe Dispenza captures our imperative and the direction to go in, well:
“Adaption is the key to survival. Darwin said it’s not the strongest species that survive or the smartest. It’s the ones who are most adapted to change. It’s not about survival of the fittest, It’s about a community that cooperates and takes care of one another. Cooperation tends to be the landmark for species to survive…Instead of competing and trying to get there first, the new model is to work together and support each other.”
Where are your communities? Who are they and how can you strengthen the relationships and webs that make them whole?
I recently heard a mother say to her young toddler, in an agitated tone: “Stop your crying!”
I totally get it. I’ve been there as a parent and hearing crying is one of the most difficult sounds for humans.
Although it can seem the logical thing to do, when we are caught in our emotional brains, hearing someone else tell us that we should stop emoting, doesn’t work. Yet, in the face of intense emotions like anger or sadness, we often don’t know what else to do and we want the other’s emotional expression to stop.
Our state comes upon us unbidden. It’s like an exercise I do in my workshops, learned from Dr. Daniel Siegel: I ask participants to sit comfortably and quietly, focused on their inner world (eyes closed or averted down). Then I say one word 7 times: the word “NO!” Once they hear me say “NO” 7 times, I ask them to open their eyes and record on a piece of paper what their body did and what they heard themselves say.
Then, I invite them back to the relaxed, eyes closed position, and I say the word “YES!” 7 times. Once that is done, they once more are invited to open their eyes and record their bodily and mental chatter reactions.
In that exercise, folks learn what their bodies feel like in a “NO” state and a “YES” state. In our “NO” states, we are stressed, closed and depleted. In the “YES” state, we are relaxed, receptive and resourced. And either state comes upon us automatically. This happens even when we only hear one simple word, let alone hear the agitating emotions of another.
When we are in the clutches of intense emotions like anger or sadness, we get into our “NO” state quicker than our thinking brain can even process.
At those intense times, when our rational selves are hi-jacked, what do any of us need?
Presence. Always. We all want the presence of another.
However, the hardest thing to do is to stay present, when we are agitated ourselves. We need to start by giving that presence to ourselves. We need to soothe ourselves. It’s natural to get flooded with stressful reactions, to go into our own “NO!” states in the face of someone else’s. It’s called mirror neurons.
So, soothing ourselves is a foundational place to start.
When you are agitated, can you stop and press your feet into the ground? Or someone yelling at you? Can you put your hand up on your heart or on your belly? Can you say to yourself: “I got this!”
Sounds simple, but it takes practice. Finding your calm in the face of someone else’s upset is so powerful and allows you to see that the other is crying out in pain for love.
Try it out or share your own tips. Love to hear! And, if you are interested, I co-wrote a whole book about How to Stay Calm in Hot Conversations – with my talented co-author, Judy Zehr.
“The mind is like water. When it’s turbulent, it’s difficult to see. When it’s calm, everything becomes clear.” … Prasad Mahes