For years I taught communication skills in organizations to help with conflict, and I still use some of the techniques in my stress-management workshops.
I came to realize that teaching individuals how to re-address situations to co-workers, friends or family members so that they would hear them and respond rationally was a daunting task. Unfortunately, we often fail to deal with others in rational ways because we have not been privy to rational discussions in our homes.
My mother and stepfather were very much like the characters in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” Their relationship was a minefield fraught with vocal barbs. I never knew what to expect.
The self-help movement gave birth to many books that would suggest conflict-handling methods that were supposed to douse the flames of anger. I would read the statements the authors proposed and laugh my butt off. A suggestion would go something like this: “Am I to understand that you are experiencing some anger toward me? Should we take a ‘time out’ and go to a quiet space and reflect on our needs and how we might share them without becoming overly emotional?”
I tried to picture my stepfather saying that to my mother. She would have nailed him to the bedpost with a few select, sarcastic jabs. He would then revert to his passive-aggressive style and reply, “If you were nice, we wouldn’t be having this argument.” Then, of course, she would take out her cloak of martyrdom and list how much she did for everyone and how little she was appreciated. The drama would continue until one of them gave up – usually my stepfather – and then there would be a semblance of peace for a few days.
What each of them really wanted was to be heard. But listening without the need to defend yourself or without reverting to dredging up the other’s mistakes is not easy. Some people are masters at keeping tabs on what you “didn’t do.”
We learn through example, and many of us have had bad examples when it comes to communication. I find with age that I don’t have the same need to score points. I certainly have trouble with being accused of things I haven’t done or said, but now I’m more than likely to think, “Oh, well, what can you do? Let them believe it. I really don’t have to go to court over this.”
Learning how to really listen to someone – without mentally practicing, while the other person is still talking, what you’re going to say next – takes some control. And the world we now live in makes it harder and harder to be present for one another.
So take a deep breath, listen, and then think about how to respond. It will probably be a lot better for your blood pressure.