Category Archives: Communication

“I feel overwhelmed thinking about my family visiting next week.”

"Awating Good Fortune"—Phil Mickelson by Mimi Stuart ©

“Awating Good Fortune”—Phil Mickelson by Mimi Stuart ©

When facing a family visit, people often have ambivalent feelings, wanting to make everyone happy, yet dreading the work and potential personal conflicts that loom ahead.

Expectations

You may feel obligated to put everyone up at your house and prepare all the meals because you think that’s what is expected of you. While giving to others can be deeply fulfilling, it’s best to give at a level where you can do so wholeheartedly and lovingly rather than resentfully. You don’t want to slip into martyrdom.

Instead of succumbing to what you think is expected, decide what you are willing to do and state so up front.

If, for example, you are happy to prepare one meal, graciously invite everyone for that meal. “I invite you all for dinner on Friday night. On Saturday, we can go out,” or “You’re on your own.” “You can pick up your favorite breakfast groceries at the store down the street.”

People like to know what is expected in the way of itinerary, sleeping arrangements, kids’ rules, differing holiday traditions, and dogs. If you clarify expectations and don’t promise too much, you can be giving without becoming exasperated and resentful. When you communicate clearly ahead of time, people are less likely to be disappointed because they understand the game plan and your expectations.

Saying “No.”

If your relatives or friends tend to ignore your requests, hints, and desires, or are generally unpleasant, then there’s no need to accommodate them with meals or housing, unless you are willing and able to live up to Mother Theresa’s philosophy: “People are generally irrational, unreasonable and selfish. Love them anyway.”

You can say “no” while still communicating warm-heartedly. For example, “That’s not a good weekend for us to have visitors. We would love to see you though if you come into town. Call us and we’ll meet for coffee/a drink/lunch.”

by Dr. Alison Poulsen (reposted from 2011)

Read “The courage to say ‘No’: ‘I wish I hadn’t said ‘Yes,’ I just don’t have the time!’”

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

“It’s not as though I don’t do anything around here!”

"The Kiss" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“The Kiss” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

If someone says, “Did you see all the stuff I did for you today?” ignore your impulse to get defensive or to snap back “I do a lot for you too !” or worse, “Why do you always have to list all the things you’ve done for me!” These types of responses are very detrimental to your relationship.

When people mention the things they’ve done, they simply want acknowledgement and appreciation. Yet many people respond defensively as though they are being attacked. Even IF the other person is implying that you never do anything, show him or her the appreciation desired as follows:

“Thank you so much! I really appreciate it. You are wonderful for doing that for me.” If you want, you could add, “Please let me know when you need help. I would love to do something for you,” or simply do something considerate for them.

So many arguments could be avoided if people could understand the underlying desires that motivate a person’s apparent complaints. It is usually a simple desire for recognition, which should be a joy to satisfy, rather than an excuse to become critical, hostile and argumentative.

To have a loving, trusting, and mutually-enhancing relationship, there must be a constant effort to be kind and see the best in other people and acknowledge them for their efforts. Then everyone will shine and try to live up to their best.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Overgeneralization: ‘You never show appreciation.’”

Watch “How to ask for more affection, intimacy and sex…and…how not to.”

Read “Seeking approval: ‘Why doesn’t my father appreciate me and all that I have accomplished?’”


“How can you be so naïve! Don’t get mad at me when I’m just pointing out how he takes advantage of you!”

"Syncopation" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Syncopation” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

John Gottman’s research shows that the first three minutes of a discussion determines the tone and direction of the remainder of the discussion in 96% of cases. Criticisms, such as “You’re so naïve,” or “Why are you so selfish?” do the most harm at the beginning of a discussion. So be careful how you start a conversation.

Gottman found that happy couples express near zero contempt toward their partner even in times of conflict. They usually discuss their problems in a neutral way. Moreover, when they do experience conflict, they have fewer emotional exchanges during the conflict than unhappy couples.

Thus, it is critical to avoid expressing negative emotions during a conflict or an argument. This includes thinly-veiled contempt or an air of superiority.

The following behaviors are very predictive of a doomed relationship:

1. escalation of conflict

2. negative interpretation of comments

3. invalidation of the partner

4. withdrawal from the partner

How to approach your partner to talk about a problem

It’s best to startup the conversation in a positive way, particularly if you’re dealing with someone who tends to become defensive.

1. Be positive. “Honey, I love you and care about you very much. I’d like to talk to you about a concern I have. Is this a good time?”

2. Neutrally and briefly mention the facts, your feelings and your wishes without being critical, superior, or controlling. “In the past, I’ve seen your friend not follow through on his end of the deal. I appreciate that you want to see the best in people. Yet it makes me sad and frustrated to see you disappointed and aggravated when he disappoints you. I don’t want to tell you what to do. I am just reminding you that he has taken advantage of you in the past, and I hope that you can avoid letting a similar situation happen again.”

3. Stop and listen carefully to the other person’s response without jumping in to clarify or defend yourself.

4. When the person’s finished, try to be understanding. Repeat his concerns back to him so he knows you are listening. End the conversation with humor and/or appreciation. “Thanks for listening to my concern.”

5. If the time comes when your partner complains about being used, simply use humor or compassion, and say, “Yep, that’s too bad,” without being drawn into any drama.

6. If he continues to complain, say “I know. It’s disappointing. But let’s focus on something we can change. Hopefully you will not trust him in the future. ”

Finally, it’s important to avoid trying to control another person. You can give a warning to him and protect yourself as best you can. But remember that if you allow differences in personality to lead to an escalatiion in conflict, the resulting negativity is likely to become more damaging than the issue you are arguing about.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: John Gottman’s “The Science of Trust.”

Read “I end up arguing with him because he’s usually too busy working to talk.”

Watch “How to Respond to Rudeness: ‘I TOLD you to get it for me!!!’”

Read “Dealing with conflict and volatility: ‘You’re being irrational!’”

Dealing with conflict and volatility: “You’re being irrational!”

"Question"—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Question”—Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

Be a skilled listener

“Talk to me” is the motto for the New York City hostage negotiations team. When dealing with extremely dangerous, volatile, and emotionally-laden situations, the most effective skill is active listening. The best negotiators interrupt less and listen more. They ask questions, generally simple ones. The same can be said for negotiating differences of opinion in any relationship.

There is a universal desire to be heard and understood. Often people become angry and irrational because they can find no other way to be heard. When people shout, repeat themselves, withdraw, or attack, you can surmise that they feel and resent not being heard.

Hold off responding to their actions or behavior. Do not argue. First you need to really listen and understand their underlying interests.

Skilled listening will satisfy their desire to be heard, build trust and connection, and buy time in a difficult situation. Skilled listening is more likely to win the other person’s consideration toward you and is one of the best ways to find out the other person’s interests so you can find creative solutions.

Ask simple questions

Rather than arguing, ask questions to uncover the other person’s underlying desires and needs. Often the most powerful question is the simplest question, and may even feel like an obvious one. Rather than objecting, arguing and responding, just truly listen in order to understand the other person’s perspective.

Minimal prompts are best, “Hmmm.” “Go on.” “I see.” But it’s critical that body language conveys that you are interested in what they have to say. Demonstrate curiosity and understanding, not skepticism or contempt. For example, lean forward, look at the person, and demonstrate a relaxed interested demeanor.

Check your understanding

Every now and then repeat back and paraphrase what the other person says to make sure you’re getting that perspective right. Mirroring the other person should be neither a linguistic trick nor compliance, but a true effort to reflect back the other person’s perspective.

Many high stakes professions involve active listening and mirroring. Think of pilots talking to the control tower and how each repeats what the other has said. Think of doctors and assistants during surgery, as well as lawyers and court reporters in court proceedings.

Showing that you understand and that you are addressing a person’s interests calms everyone down and makes problem solving possible. Mirroring the other person also builds rapport. The goal is to get the other person to say “Exactly!” when you paraphrase him or her.

Start with broad open-ended questions that don’t have a yes or no answer.

1. “Talk to me.”

2. “Would you explain to me your situation.”

3. “I would like to understand what your perspective is on the matter.”

4. “Tell me about your needs and desires and what you’re hoping for.”

Insights emerge from what the other person says and doesn’t say.

Then ask narrower questions, such as,

“You say you want to have more time together. Can you say more about that.”

Eventually you can ask more specific yes or no questions.

“Would you feel happy if we could a weekly date night and Saturday afternoons together?”

While hostage negotiations are much more explosive than typical day-to-day negotiations or relationship conflicts, the same principles hold. Research shows that the most successful sales people talk less and let the buyer talk more. Happy couples spend more time trying to understand and support their partner than trying to drive home their point and get their way. So, to become happier and more successful in your relationships, move away from the football metaphor of offense and defense to that of a scientist and focus on curiosity and understanding.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.” Thanks to Professor Freeman and his excellent Audio course from The Great Courses.

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “Didn’t you hear what I just said!”

Watch “Dealing with Angry People.”

Negotiating and resolving conflict: “I’m buying a new car and that’s that. ”

"Formula Farley" by Mimi Stuart©

“Formula Farley” by Mimi Stuart©

Some people face conflict by becoming overbearing while others become overly accommodating. The key to problem-solving is to get away from focusing on positions and move to focusing on underlying interests and concerns.

Interests vs. Positions

Interests rarely conflict, whereas positions often do. To avoid taking positions and getting nowhere, you need to take the time to figure out what the other person’s interests are. It’s best to start out by gaining rapport and being willing to truly understand the other person’s perspective.

Here are five key steps in successful communication when facing opposing positions

1. Show respect. Build trust by being respectful and honest. When people feel disrespected or mistreated, they will act irrationally even if they hurt everyone else as well as themselves.

2. Listen. Give the other person a chance to be heard. Allow the other person to fully express concerns without your interrupting or being dismissive of those concerns. Often people become more flexible and accommodating when someone takes the time to understand his or her point of view. Moreover, when you understand another person’s perspective, you will be able have a more productive discussion.

3. Find out the other person’s underlying interest or concern. Avoid focusing on the position, for instance, “I’m buying a new car,” and find out what the underlying desires and concerns are, for instance, “I don’t want a car that might break down on the highway,” or “It would look better to my clients if I drove a nice car,” or “I’ve had a rough year, I need to do something nice for myself.”

4. Figure out what your own underlying concern is and explain it to the other person. Your position might be, “I don’t want you to buy a new car,” but your interest might be “I want us to minimize spending money because I want some financial security,” or “I want to make sure we have enough money to go on vacation,” or “I don’t want to buy a new car that loses value the moment you drive it off the lot.”

5. Creatively search for solutions together that satisfy both parties’ interests and be open to discussion. In the car-buying case, an effective discussion might involve considering concerns about long-term financial security, driving safety, and the pleasure of owning a nicer car.

Successful negotiations and dealing with conflict require patience and work. Yet the benefits of handling conflicts effectively are enormous. When you learn to collaborate with someone who has different interests than you and to handle impasses with wisdom and principles, you mitigate anger, resentment, and anxiety while enhancing your relationships and everyone’s contentment.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Read “When she gets angry, I feel overwhelmed and have to withdraw.”

Reference: Professor Seth Freeman’s “The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal.”

Triangulation: “Two of my best friends are telling me about how bad the other is and making me promise not to say anything, and then I feel guilty.”

"In the Loop" — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart ©

“In the Loop”—Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart ©

Next time one of your friends starts talking to you about another friend, you might just ask, “What would you like from me? How can I help you with this?” If they just want to vent and complain, then I would back away from the conversation because it’s just not going to make anyone’s life any better.

People “triangulate” when they bring a third person in the middle of their conflict in order to relieve their anxiety, not to improve the situation. Sometimes people allow themselves to be triangulated because they like the feeling of being included and needed. But triangulation usually involves taking sides and doesn’t end well. Listening to complaints is draining and fuels negativity.

Dealing with triangulation and dealing with derogatory gossip have much in common. Here are some ways you can respond:

1. Have empathy for the person being talked about. Take the other person’s side and play the devil’s advocate.

2. Respond with light-hearted humor.

3. Avoid getting in the middle. “I think it would be more effective if you talked to him about how you feel, rather than to me.” Or “I care about both of you and think it’s best not to get in the middle.”

4. Focus your attention on why your friend is preoccupied with talking about your other friend. “Why are you obsessed with Amanda? Maybe it would be better to focus on your own life.”

5. Be direct. “I’m uncomfortable listening to all this negativity about someone who’s not here to defend himself.”

6. Help your friend improve the situation: “Can you think of a diplomatic way to talk to her directly?” Or “Have you thought about how you may have participated in this situation?”

Part of friendship is helping with dilemmas, conflict, and relationships. However, if someone is not attempting to gain insight and improve the situation at hand, then that person may simply be using you to vent and avoid the difficult task of self-awareness and growth. In situations of attempted triangulation a friend should speak up and challenge the other person to be the best he or she can be.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Healthy Relationships and
Effective Communication

www.sowhatireallymeant.com
@alisonpoulsen
https://www.facebook.com/dralisonpoulsen

Read “Venting and Triangulation.”

Read “Triangulation: ‘My ex can’t stop complaining about me to my child. I feel like doing the same right back.’”