Carol said, “At the Showcase, we can buy some Christmas presents.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “If there is something we can use, OK. Otherwise, let’s not buy stuff.”
Those two small, seemingly insignificant statements led to a 40 minute conversation of clarification, and much deeper understanding between Carol and me. And that conversation saved lots of mixed messages, frustration, mind-reading, and confusion.
The disturbing thing is that many of these short conversations have happened in our past, without the clarification, and they have caused heartache, pain, and cold-shoulderedness (I know that’s not a word but it’s a good description). For us, these conversations and the after-math, have been all about a difference, and misunderstanding, of perspectives.
I’m wondering if you have had similar situations, either personally or professionally. I’m guessing it happens more than we’d like to admit.
Here’s what transpired.
After our initial conversation, there were a few minutes of quiet – dastardly disturbing quiet.
I am grateful that Carol is willing to open ticklish conversations, get to the core of them, rather than having distorted perceptions fester into an oozing boil of toxicity. And there was no avoidance possible because we were travelling in the car, just the two of us – self-chosen captives.
Carol’s perspective was that our decisions were always based on money. She felt that she could not spend money on anything unless she could justify (to me) a logical, rational “need” for the expenditure. She assumed that I saw her as an impulse buyer – always wasting money on un-necessary, un-needed, un-practical “stuff.”
Money was not on my mind at all. From my perspective, I had been doing a major clean-out and wasn’t keen to start collecting again. In the office, I had kept and stored many articles, papers with notes and ideas, magazines, conference bags, pamphlets, and such. In our closet I had old t-shirts (thin enough I could see through them), holey (not holy) jeans, worn-out sweatpants, and tattered shirts. In the shop I had lumber and metal, used car parts, used nails, screws, and gadgets, bits of this and that with the idea that someday I’d find a use for those things. I had let go of a whack of that stuff – to the recycling depot, thrift store, or dump. I felt good about my accomplishment and didn’t want to start stock-piling again.
Neither perspective was right or wrong. The challenge was that neither of us understood the other’s perspective, and we had both made mental judgments based on our lack of understanding.
Our perspectives had us in a head-lock of victimization. Carol was blaming me for being a controlling spendthrift and I was blaming Carol for being a massive collector of useless crap.
One of the most powerful lessons I have learned is that victimization tears relationships apart because we blame someone or something for the consequences of our own choices. And because fragile emotions are attached to the situation, we either avoid talking about it or we react with a foray of cut-throat attacks. And a negative spiral ensues, where we make up more B.S. stories in our minds, fight about unrelated events, and the foundation of our relationship crumbles.
With that thought in mind, I have a challenge for you, should you choose to accept it (was that a surprise?). Become consciously aware of your mental reactions to what another person says. Follow the process below so you can ensure clarity, understanding, and a stronger, successful relationship.
• Notice the negative reactive thought – before you say or do anything. Be aware of the physiological responses: flushed face, heart pounding, squinting, shallow breathing, clenched fists, tight jaw, or many other possibilities. You likely know what they are.
• Ask yourself, “Do I understand exactly what he/she means?” If you have reacted, there is a good chance you don’t understand their perspective.
• Be courageous and ask for clarification. Prepare your questions carefully. Use phrases such as, “I’m not sure I totally understand”, “Can you please explain to me exactly what you mean?”, or “I don’t know if I’m getting what you mean.” These statements carry an underlying message that the relationship is important and “I want to understand” rather than “you are the problem.”
• LISTEN. I repeat, LISTEN. The goal is to understand – not necessarily agree, just understand. Set aside your ego, emotions, agenda, and attachment to your own “right” way.
• Repeat back what you think you heard – the words and feelings.
• Continue to ask for clarification until the other person affirms that you understand.
You may be thinking, “What a stupid exercise” or “What a waste of time” or “Won’t I seem stupid by asking all of those questions?”
A better thought is, “How stupid do I look if I assume I understand, react negatively, and destroy our relationship?”
I have found that by asking clarifying questions, the other person is usually eager to help me understand. My courage gives them the indication that I really care about our relationship and that I want to enhance it. This process builds closeness and competence rather than distance and despair.
You may dismiss this whole idea, delete the article, and never give this another thought. Or you can integrate and apply this immediately in all of your communications with others. I guarantee you’ll see positive results.
Want proof that this works? Carol and I bought some things, had a great day of fun and inspiring conversation, and are still happily married.