How to Deal With Conflict or Stress Between You and Someone Else

>> Friday

WHEN YOU'RE HAVING a difficult moment with any person, stop whatever you're doing and start applying this method: Listen completely and speak only truth. This is one of the most useful, all-purpose and powerful methods in human relations. This one principle, applied with vigor, will straighten out almost any mess a relationship can get itself into.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is not listening. When you have something you want to say or when the other person is saying something you don't want to hear, what can you do? Interrupt, leave, start doing something else — you have a lot of obvious options.

Or there are subtler possibilities. Have you ever been angry while someone was talking and you were "listening" to what they were saying, but you listened to find something wrong with what they were saying? Sure you have. I have too. But it never does any good. It isn't really listening.

I'm sure you already know it works better to really listen. And when the other person has gotten across what they need to say, and all they need to say, and you have understood them, then speak. I'll bet you already knew that. But the natural and automatic thing to do is anything but that. Thus this article.

Drill it into your head. Practice it at every opportunity, which means any time you're talking with someone. And when you notice other people don't do that, don't say to yourself, "Well they aren't doing it with me, so I won't do it either."

It certainly would be ideal if both of you listened completely and spoke only truth, but it isn't likely.

And that's okay. Your relationships will work better for you, be more satisfying to you, benefit you, if you listen completely and speak only truth even if the other person in the relationship doesn't do it. And it'll be worse for you if you don't do it, regardless of what the other person does.

But there is a good chance that your practice of this method will influence them to do it back, or at least do more of it than before. Especially if you explain what you're doing.

This principle really shows itself off during conflict. It can take someone from being really lousy at dealing with conflict to being really good at dealing with conflict in a very short time. But it is also good to use whenever you are talking with someone with whom you want to have a close relationship. Practice it all the time. Make it a new habit. Make it a new part of your personality. Your life will never be the same.

how to listen

Listening completely is not done with silence. Yes, while the other is talking, you need to be silent to listen. But at some point the person will stop. Is there something missing? Is there something more you want to know? Is there a gap in your understanding? Ask a question that allows the other person to make you understand even more — of the situation, of their feelings, of their thoughts and understandings about it.

Ask questions, not in a lawyer-grilling-a-defendant sort of way, but in a share-yourself-with-me way. Your sincere desire to understand will draw the other person out. Your honest wish to know will bring questions into your mind which you can then ask.

And the suggestion to listen completely includes letting them know you understand. The look on your face isn't enough. Nonverbal communication is not always clear. You must say you understand, and not just by saying, "I understand," although that is at least something. Use the phrase, "It must have been..." to show that you understand — or give the person an opportunity to straighten you out if you don't understand. "It must have been frustrating to have so many things go wrong at once." "It must have been infuriating to see me do it again." "It must have taken the heart right out of you to see it break."

There's nothing sacred about the words "it must have been..." Any words that do the same job will do: "I'll bet you must have felt..." "Did it seem dangerous?" "That had to make you mad." "Wow, three in a row? That's amazing."

Use words to let the person know you are listening, and you're not just hearing the words but you're understanding the feelings too. Another reason this is a good idea is that you might be getting it wrong. By saying out loud what you think they must have felt or what it must have been like for them, you allow them to correct you if you're wrong, so you'll get a better understanding. And the person you're talking to gets a better idea of how much is getting across. When they feel understood, something good happens. There's a relief or a completion or something. But whatever it is, it is good and it is healthy. You do the ones you love a favor by listening completely.

Studies have shown that confiding in someone, especially about troubling things, is much healthier than keeping it to oneself. You do people a real, measurable service to listen and let them know you understand.

A friend of mine I had known for about nine months confided in me and told me something that I'd never heard someone say. In the weeks before he confided in me, he had told me he had a lot on his mind and was waking up at night and unable to go back to sleep. But the things he told me he was worrying about didn't seem that serious: They were work-related or money-related. I wondered why they kept him awake at night.

Then he told me what was really bugging him. A long time ago, he had done something he felt very guilty about. It happened a long time ago, in another country. His circumstances then were very different than the life he was leading now, but he had a memory of his past and it haunted him.

I don't know what he was like before, but he is a good man now, and I could tell it was important that he say this thing. So I listened and I asked questions.

It did him good to get it off his chest. He was noticeably lighter. He was able to sleep again. He seemed relieved of a great burden. When people are able to confide an emotionally significant experience like that, it makes them more whole, more healthy, even more sane. It helps the person mend themselves.

When you listen, you give a great gift.

someone willing to listen

In an ongoing study at the University of Washington, something is becoming clearer and clearer: The amount of coronary artery disease you can measure isn't a very good indicator of how bad off a cardiac patient is. Other factors, such as the amount of anxiety or depression the person feels and how often, as well as how effective they feel they are in the world, are also important indicators of potential complications. One factor that enters the picture heavily is having someone who will listen.

The head of the Center for Living at Duke University, Martin Sullivan, MD, says, "Those patients who have a confidante do much better than those who don't."

Listening is that powerful. But it isn't really natural. It's natural to interrupt and out-talk other people. Every child does this unless they are trained to do otherwise. But most of us, even as adults, are still not very good at listening. You may be, and if you are, my hat's off to you — you're making the world a better, saner, healthier place.

And even as good as you are, you can probably be even better. You can listen more intently. You can ask better questions. You can get better at letting the person know you understand. You can improve your ability to judge when is the time to talk and when is the time to listen.

When you're dealing with a difficult moment with people, it can make a huge difference.

Listening, though, is only half the task. Remember, the formula is: Listen completely and speak only truth.

the truth

The truth needs a little explaining. I don't mean truth "as you know it." I mean just truth. And let's not get lost in a philosophical discussion about whether when you perceive the color red if it is really the same perception in my brain, or whether the universe really exists outside our own experience. Let's be a little more practical.

When I say, "The door was open when I walked in," that's truth (if I'm not lying). I'll give you a bunch of examples just to make it clear. And let's assume the person speaking is not lying.

"I feel sad and confused." That's a statement of truth.

"You are mean to me." That is not a simple statement of truth. "Mean" is an interpretation of what actually happened. And this is one of the big things to look out for when you're trying to speak only truth. Interpretations and generalizations like this are a big cause of problems between people.

Let me explain what's wrong with the statement. First off, it would be more accurate to say, "You are mean to me sometimes." Because obviously you're too smart to keep interacting with someone who is mean to you all the time. But to be even more practical, you'd want to say, "You were mean to me this morning." It's more practical because something can be done about a real incident. Nothing can be done about a vague generality, other than answer with another vague generality: "Okay, I'll try to be less mean to you."

But even that is unsatisfactory. You're still using the "mean" interpretation. Let's get more accurate, more specific. More truthful. "This morning you slammed the door on the way out and I felt hurt by it — not because my finger was caught in the door but because I thought you must be angry at me and I didn't think I deserved it."

Of course, "you slammed the door" is a guess and not strictly truth. "When you closed the door it made a louder noise than it usually does," would be even more scientific and closer to speaking only truth (and not mixing up any interpretations and guesses about whether it was intentional, and without any generalizations about something vague like "meanness").

I'm going to use more examples in a minute, but first I want you to look at what the accuracy has done for your statement. It starts out as You are mean to me, which, if you can imagine someone saying it to you, would be hard do deal with — where do you start? You can start with That's bullshit! but that doesn't sound like the beginning of a fruitful conversation.

So it starts out as You are mean to me and ends up with This morning when you left, the door made a louder noise than it usually does and I was thinking maybe you slammed it on purpose because you were mad at me. Were you?

Compare the two statements. Imagine someone saying them to you. Do you see how this is a much easier statement to respond to? And how it might lead to a constructive conversation? That's what speaking only truth does for communication. It directly and literally increases communication because if you look at the two statements from the point of view of how much is being said you can easily see that the first sentence leaves a lot unsaid and leaves it up to the listener to figure out what he's talking about, while the second says quite a bit and doesn't make the listener guess anything. That's better communication. And you really have to concentrate on what you're doing to be able to do it. It does not come naturally.

Now, more examples. From now on, I want you to call me if you're going to be later than ten. Is that a true statement? Yes, absolutely. You're simply saying what you want.

You're so inconsiderate! Truth? No way. It's a generalization, an interpretation, and doesn't give anything specific. Looked at scientifically, it is not a fact, but a hypothesis, and one that could never be validated or invalidated. Any discussion about it will probably go nowhere.

I think you're a jerk. True or false? Ooh, that's a tricky one. You may indeed have the thought you're a jerk so technically it is a true statement, but it is unproductive to say so because the thought you're sharing is not true for all the same reasons as the previous paragraph. It's a generalization, an interpretation, and it can never be validated or invalidated conclusively. "Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place," wrote Benjamin Franklin, "but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."

I think if you stopped doing that, I'd feel better. Is this a true statement? Yes. It is a hypothesis, and you state it accurately as one.

One more. I feel you're a jerk. What do you think? True or false? False again. Feelings are very basic: Anger, sadness, fear, and their milder and more extreme forms (for example, mildly angry might be annoyed, peeved, frustrated, etc., while extreme anger might be enraged, incensed, furious, etc.) Don't get fancy. Feelings are basic. You're a jerk is not a feeling. It is an opinion, and a highly abstract and worthless one at that.

I think that's enough examples. When you want to "speak the truth," here's where to focus your attention:

1. what you want
2. what you feel
3. what you observe

And be as accurate and specific as you can. That's what speak only truth means. Confucius said wisdom was "when you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it." And the better you get at it, the better your relationships will get, as long as you don't try to teach it to the person while you're arguing. I'm all for you helping other people to learn this stuff, but wait until you're happy with each other. During conflict, just do it yourself.

Keep in mind that listening needs to come first. People generally don't want to listen when they have something to say. So arguments develop where each person interrupts the other. Neither listens, and the conversation goes nowhere. Worse: It goes down. You're actually worse off than if you had said nothing because of all the untruth that has been spoken — all the generalizations and interpretations and unqualified opinions and hypotheses spoken as statements of fact.

research shows the way

William Swann, Jr., PhD, at the University of Texas found after studying about 200 couples, that before people get married, they want their partners to tell them how great they are, but after they're already married, they want honest. Too much flattery — praise that isn't justified — makes most people uncomfortable, and makes even people with a high level of self-esteem withdraw psychologically from the marriage. We want honesty. That's what makes people feel close to each other. Praise where it is deserved, for sure, but nowhere else.

Clifford Notarius, PhD, did a study on husbands who criticized their wives in a way that used mind-reading. That means saying things like, "I know you hate me," or "You're always thinking bad things about me." When husbands did that to wives, their children had more problems like substance abuse, headaches, social incompetence, nervousness, anxiety, insecurity. And the kicker is that the children don't even have to be present when the parents are fighting! It turns out that the way a man fights is not isolated to just fighting with his wife. That's the way he deals with conflicts and problems. And that way of dealing with conflicts and problems shows up in the way he interacts with his kids, which teaches them by example how to deal with life in a way that doesn't work.

You can make your children more psychologically and socially healthy by making the principle of speaking truthfully a part of your character. Learn to listen when talking to your spouse, also and it will change you in other ways too. It will teach you new ways of dealing with problems and conflicts, and this will spill over to benefit your kids.

Researchers at Ohio State University have shown that when arguments between couples disintegrates into put-downs and sarcasm, stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine kick in, and send the immune system into the gutter. When you are listening well and speaking only the truth, you'll automatically avoid most put-downs and you'll completely avoid sarcasm, two of the most deadly forms of communication in close relationships.

Do yourself a favor, and do the people you love a favor. Use this method. Make it your new Law. Live by it. Repeat it to yourself every day until it becomes a habit-knit part of your personality. You will reach a whole new level in your relationships.

Listen completely and speak only truth.


David 4:20 PM  

Another awesome post. I can't wait to try it out. Talking with my wife goes so much better when my head is in the right place. Thanks Adam!


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