The dance of connection

A friend mentioned recently Cartoon of children dancingthat she and her partner experience a lot of near misses in their interactions. As she put it, “communication zings by,” and it’s only later that she realizes what she heard maybe wasn’t exactly what was said – and vice versa. And this is a couple who’ve been happily together for over 20 years!

We all know that different people have different communication styles. Some people want details, others want the high-level picture; some wait till they have a concrete plan, others brainstorm fledgeling ideas; some talk easily about feelings and emotions, and others are more private and reserved.

Of course there’s no right or wrong in whatever style we prefer. But no matter how much we may be aware of these differences from a conceptual standpoint, when it comes to our closest relationships we often struggle to really get it on a day-to-day practical level. Instead, we start thinking things like, If she really loved me, she would listen better, and If he really cared, he’d ask me what’s wrong.

The closer we want to feel with someone, all too often, the further we actually do feel.

Then there are those moments when the communication clicks instead of zinging by … and we experience the connection and mutual intimacy that, in the end, we all yearn for.

Logic, facts, practicality, rationality, planning …

Feelings, emotions, sensitivity, intuition, flow …

The dance of connection asks us to take all of that into account.

There’s no blueprint for this dance. I can’t paint footsteps on the floor to lead you through the waltz, tango, or jitterbug. But there are some guiding principles that, if you adopt them, will help you stop stepping on each other’s toes.

I’d be willing to bet you’ve heard at least some of these suggestions before. But don’t just click off this page. Instead, take a moment to read my commentary, which might offer some different perspectives.

1. Assume good intent

We know this is a good and generous approach. But what typically happens is that we put conditions around it, conditions that are usually about agreement – or at least not-too-differing disagreement. If he’s more or less in the same ball-park I’m in, I’ll assume good intent. If, however, we’re far apart in our opinions, then I’ll assume he’s wrong, malicious, and possibly an idiot.

Assume good intent no matter what you may be thinking about whatever they’re saying or asking. (If you absolutely know someone is untrustworthy, of course, this no longer applies – but then, if you absolutely know they’re untrustworthy, you’re probably not attempting to connect more closely with them!)

2. Listen to feel

We’re all guilty of listening to debate.

What if you listened … not just to understand … but to feel?

This is similar to what I wrote about in this post about practicing empathy. What is the other person’s experience as they talk to you? What feelings are they describing or displaying?

And how do your answers to these questions change your awareness of what they’re communicating?

3. Interpret and validate

As you converse with someone, you’ll find yourself doing a certain amount of interpretation.

Don’t assume your interpretation is accurate.

My husband is an idea-bouncer. He loves to explore possibilities out loud.

I’m a planner, and I tend to assume that people’s suggestions are definitive statements of what they want.

I have to remember that he isn’t making demands and isn’t necessarily wedded to the things he proposes.

He has to remember to preface his idea-bouncing with, “This is just me trying something out.”

Life is a lot better when we both remember to interpret based on what we knew about the other person, and then validate what we believed we were understanding.

4. Don’t tackle big stuff when you’re emotional

It’s easy to think you have to resolve the issue right now because you’re upset, they’re upset, and it needs to be resolved in order for everyone to stop being upset.

A far better choice is to acknowledge everyone’s upset and choose to tackle the resolution at another time.

But don’t make this an excuse to postpone the conversation. There’s always a temptation to let things go when they’re not in-the-moment hot issues – but if it’s still simmering, it’ll come back onto the boil sooner or later. Much better to take the time when you’re calm to think through what you each want and have the conversation in a quieter moment.

It’s always a practice

I was going to write “practice makes perfect,” but of course, there’s no such thing as reaching perfection in this dance.

But there are always ways to improve, and practice will move you closer.

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Three steps for handling chronic complainers

Cartoon of whining manThe chronic complainer. We’ve all encountered them. They love describing all the things that are wrong in the world – and not just once. It’s the same story every time we encounter them.

And they suck the energy out of the room! We quickly start avoiding them, whether by running to the bathroom when we see them coming, or choosing not to answer the phone when their name pops up on caller ID.

Often, though, we either don’t want to cut them out of our lives, or we can’t (a co-worker, for instance). So what can we do? Here’s a simple three-step process.

Step One

Begin by making sure the person has a valid reason for coming to talk with you. Do they have a question? Is there something that needs to be done or information that needs to be conveyed? If there’s no specific issue, well, you’re a busy person. “Hey, great to see you! I wish I had time to talk, but I’m on a deadline – gotta run!” (Or, of course, if they’re hanging out next to your desk – “Sorry, can’t talk right now! I’m on a deadline – see you later!” They’ll have a hard time standing there whilst you continue with your work … as long as you stay firm and avoid getting sucked in.)

Step Two

Assuming there’s a real reason for communicating, begin the conversation by saying, “Hey, look, I’ve only got ten minutes right now. Is that enough time?”

If it is, great.

If not, then schedule a meeting later in the day (or week) for exactly the amount of time they say their issue will take. (If you do this, be sure to meet at their desk rather than yours, so you can easily walk away when the time is over.)

Step Three

When you reach the time limit – either the initial ten minutes or the longer time scheduled on your calendar – be firm. “Okay, I’ve got to go now – we’re at the end of the time I had available!”

It’s that simple.

One more thought

It really is that simple, but that doesn’t mean it will feel easy and natural – at least, not at first.

As nice people, we tend to get sucked into listening for longer than we should. It can feel not-nice, unsupportive, or unfriendly to cut someone off.

But respecting our own needs and setting firm boundaries is an important part of keeping ourselves sane. Interestingly enough, it actually increases other people’s respect for us.

Of course, if someone has a real problem that they want your help with (and they actually take action to improve their situation), you’ll help them.

But the chronic complainer is a different story. And while you may feel sad for them, that doesn’t mean you have to join them in the complaint cycle.

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When they don’t say “thank you”

Thank you!You’re generous.

They don’t say “thank you.”

It’s a slap in the face. Why, you might think, did I even bother?

And it’s hard to retain a sense of connection with your feelings of generosity, never mind your sense of connection with the other person.  How, you might think, can they be so rude and ungrateful?

In the end, you have three basic choices for what to do.

1. You can suck it up and say nothing

Just how upset are you? And is your upset based in the present-day situation, or does it reflect historical incidents that could be causing you to over-react?

If you’re dealing with someone you only encounter occasionally, or if you think you might be bringing some old baggage into the situation, saying nothing might be your best option – especially if you can take this opportunity to explore whether it’s time to let go of past hurt and frustration so you can enter into present-day situations with greater clarity.

2. You can be curious

We can’t know what’s happening for other people. We don’t know what their expectations were; we don’t know what else might be going on in their lives; we don’t know if they simply have a hard time receiving.

Be curious and simply say, “Hey – I feel like something got missed here – I don’t recall hearing you say ‘thanks’ for what I gave you.”

It’s awkward, to be sure. But if you’re upset, it’s better to bring it out into the open. Otherwise, your resentment and hurt will have a decidedly negative impact on your relationship!

3. You can be angry

Especially if you feel like you were particularly generous, or generous in a situation where it wasn’t required of you (it wasn’t a family expectation for birthday or holiday giving, for instance), your anger, frustration, and hurt feelings are perfectly understandable and possibly even justifiable.

However, getting overtly angry – or swearing never to give that person anything ever again – isn’t going to help heal the relationship.

Instead, notice that there were two separate actions taken by two separate people.

First action: you gave someone something.

Second action: they received what you gave them.

If you can separate your generous action from their unresponsiveness, you can retain the warm feelings you experienced in giving … even though you might still be surprised and unhappy about their lack of gratitude.

Which choice would you take?

I’m sure it’s obvious that my recommendation, in most cases, would be #2.

(The exception would be to choose #1 if it’s (a) someone who habitually behaves this way and you know they’re not going to change – family members might fall into this category!, or (b) someone you don’t have that much contact with. There’s more to be said about (a), but that’s for another time and another post!)

It’s awkward to have that difficult conversation. But having the conversation with care and empathy clears the air, restores connection, and makes space for the relationship to grow … instead of leaving a trail of tension, frustration, and resentment.

And you might learn that you actually did miss their expression of gratitude. Perhaps it was timed differently than you expected. Or maybe they were so overwhelmed they didn’t know how to thank you – or they might have hand-written a grateful note they were just about to give you.

(All three of those examples come from recent client experiences. This isn’t just me being positive!)

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How is your “house” decorated?

Houses in the cloudsOne of my favorite quotes comes from the Sufi poet Hafiz:

The words you speak become the house you live in.

Think about that for a moment.

How often do you judge yourself, call yourself names, berate yourself – all in ways you’d never inflict on anyone else?

This morning, my husband made the wise and true point that we have the option of choosing how we react in any situation and how we want to feel.

No more than 90 seconds later, he was furious with himself for having misplaced his car key.

As he’d just pointed out, we have choices. But as he experienced almost immediately, we don’t always make the best choice. (Don’t you love how the universe offers opportunities to test and live up to our insights?)

There are many reasons why this happens. In my experience, the most common one is not that we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards (though most of us do!). I think the real reason is that we’ve been chastised for our mistakes so often, especially by people who are important to us – starting with our parents – that we tend to jump into chastise mode ourselves in order to defend against other people’s criticism. See, we think, If I get angry first about how I screwed up, then I won’t be hurt by their displeasure.

But:

The words you speak become the house you live in.

What we say to ourselves – whether out loud or in the privacy of our thoughts – becomes the “house” we live in: our internal living space, our emotional and psychological experience, the state of mind we carry with us.

It also, of course, spills over onto the people around us: as another wise soul commented, “When the leader sneezes, everyone catches a cold.” (Jerry Colonna of reboot.io, on his Reboot podcast.)

What virus are you spreading?

Or – more poetically – how is your house decorated?

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Do it now! 3 steps to hard conversations

Hard conversations!Difficult conversations are, well, difficult.

Hard. Challenging. Intimidating.

Easy to put off.

I’ve had several discussions recently with people who were trying to decide how to tackle a difficult conversation. In each case, the over-riding emotion was some form of do I hafta? combined with I’m dreading this!

Of course I understand. I face my own sense of dread and “do I really have to do this” when hard conversations loom in my life.

And yet I know for certain that the longer I put off these conversations, the harder they get and the worse the situation becomes. My perception of the difficulty grows from small to bigger to enormous, and the underlying problem, left untended, tends to escalate as well.

So, onward. If we must do it (and we must, unless we want to perpetuate the frustration and resentment), let’s do it as simply, clearly, and cleanly as possible.

Step One: define what you want

Any of my clients – or the members of my Facebook group The Connection Incubator – will tell you that I am forever clamoring for them to define what they want – in writing.

Thinking or talking about what you want will get you started, but it’s only when you write down your desired outcomes that you gain real clarity.

Writing it down also helps save you from the trap of randomly throwing solutions at the problem, which is a huge temptation when you’re in the middle of the situation. It feels logical – something’s wrong, let’s take action and fix it! – but 99% of the time you’ll only address the most glaring symptom, not the real problem.

Clearly defining the desired end point (in writing!) reveals options that you’d never otherwise be aware of.

Step Two: avoid apologizing

That’s a strong statement. Obviously there are times – as with one person I was discussing this with recently – where you really do owe the other person an apology.

However, if the conversation you need to have includes holding the other person accountable for their behavior, or asking them to alter their behavior in some way, starting out with an apology will weaken your position – especially if you’re dealing with someone who tends to be manipulative or passive-aggressive.

One option is to say, for instance, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you, AND, is it unreasonable of me to expect you to follow through on your commitment?”  (Obviously you’ll modify this to fit your situation.)

There are a lot of reasons why “is it unreasonable of me…” works. The short version is that inviting someone to say “no” to you – which is what this does – actually gives them a sense of control over the conversation. People are wary of agreement (saying “yes”) when they’re in conflict or negotiation or any sort of difficult conversation, but they’re quite willing to say “no” – even when that “no” is actually agreeing that you’ve just made a valid point!

Step Three: pick your time AND don’t delay

The longer you delay, the harder the conversation will be.

Timing is everything.

Reconciling the two takes discernment and self-awareness. You can easily talk yourself into waiting for just the right moment – but perhaps the right moment is actually right now!

That said, if you’re tackling an ongoing issue, try to find a time when it’s not in full flare mode. Difficult discussions are never emotion-free, but the emotional charge does rise and fall, and you want to avoid the impulse to go into problem-solving mode when the emotions are running high.

Instead, try suggesting to the other person that you each take time to define the outcomes you want and what you see as the primary issue. Then schedule time to sit down together and review what you’ve written … and talk about how you can move forward.

Yes, it’s hard.

And it can be transformative to the relationship.

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For what?

Thank you for...“Thank you.”

It’s polite, grateful, and appreciative. Hopefully, it’s also sincere and warm.

“Thank you.”

It’s nice to hear.

But if “thank you” is all you say, you’re missing several important opportunities.

  1. When someone hears you state the specific thing you’re grateful for, they feel seen, valued, and truly appreciated.
    When they only hear a generic “thank you,” it can feel offhand and unrewarding.
  2. Explicitly thanking them for their effort makes them much more likely to do it again in the future.
    If they’re not sure what they’ve done that you’re thanking them for, they could misunderstand – or even feel under-appreciated.
  3. Stating what you’re thankful for makes you more aware of how good you feel about them and their action.
    Even if it was something they were supposed to do.

Being specific in your thankfulness makes you feel even better, makes them feel even better – and makes them more likely to keep on doing good things for you.

“Thank you” is a good thing to say.

“Thank you for …” is a wonderful thing to say.

And if you’re the recipient of a generic “thank you,” try asking, “For what?” Their answer will teach you about yourself – and about them.

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The gentle art of conflict transformation

Dove of peace transforming barbed wire to olive branchesSome people avoid conflict. Others seem to relish it.

Google “conflict management,” and you’ll get over nine million results – and a lot of autofill suggestions about conflict management styles, examples, process, and so on.

Google “conflict resolution,” and you’ll see over 70 million results!

Based on those numbers, it seems like a lot more people are trying to fix the problem of conflict after it’s happened (“resolve” it) instead of seeking to handle it as it arises (“manage” it).

Surprisingly, “conflict transformation” comes in between the two, at over 13 million hits.

I say “surprisingly” because when I talk about conflict transformation, almost no one has heard of it. Eyebrows go up, eyes get round, and people say, “Oooo!”, which at least tells me they’re intrigued, even if they’ve not heard of it.

What does it mean to transform conflict, rather than managing it or resolving it?

To begin with, it means there’s no sticky, unpleasant emotional residue that conflict often leaves behind, even when “managed” or “resolved.” You know what I mean: that walking-on-eggshells feeling, or the resentment that lingers when the outcome feels unfair to one – or all – of the people affected.

Conflict transformation means that the people involved have stepped back from the inevitable emotional reactivity that conflict brings up in us. They’ve taken the time and care to hear what each other had to say, honoring (instead of judging) the reality of emotions and opinions.

They have allowed silence to be a partner in the process, giving each other and themselves space to think, explore, and experience different perspectives.

While often one or all of the people involved shift their positions during the process, conflict transformation doesn’t mean everyone miraculously agrees; nor does it mean anyone has to acquiesce, compromise, or change their beliefs or opinions. I think it’s negotiation expert Christopher Voss who points out that “win-win” often translates into “wimp-win” or even “wimp-wimp,” where someone – or everyone – essentially wimps out. And as he says, “splitting the difference” is usually a recipe for resentment and a feeling that the resolution is unfair – often on all sides of the issue.

It may seem as if I’m describing an impossibility, or at the least, an incredibly difficult journey.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The first step is acknowledging that things can be different.

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What’s in the space between?

In every relationship between two people, there are obviously two entities involved: the two people.

What you may not realize is that there’s a third entity in the room.

And leaving out that entity – especially when there’s disagreement or conflict happening – is a huge mistake.

So what in the world am I talking about?

The space between the two of you.

This space is where the relationship lives, breathes, struggles, and either succeeds or fails.

Whether we’re talking about a professional relationship between manager and employee or between colleagues, or a personal relationship between you and a friend or family member – or even a casual relationship between you and your auto mechanic! – there is something happening between you that’s distinct from either of you individually.

That space between can be filled with tension, or it can be filled with acceptance. It can be filled with stress, or with ease; with defensiveness, or with empathy; with irritation, or with joy; with disdain, or with respect; and so on.

Notice, too, that even when there is disagreement and conflict, the space between can still hold love, empathy, and respect … and even when there is apparent agreement and you seem to be getting along, the space between can hold contempt, frustration, and annoyance.

Just as human experience is prone to paradox, so too is the space between. So, for instance, the space between can hold love, frustration, anger, respect, and defensiveness, all in a bewildering mixture.

Ask yourself …

Consider a relationship where you feel comfortable, safe, engaged, and cared about.

What does the space between hold? How does it feel? Is it warm, cool, soft, firm, light, dark? What color is it? How big is it? What’s the emotional experience?

These probably seem like strange questions to be asking about something you might not even be sure exists, but if you give yourself some time to explore them, you may be surprised and intrigued.

Now consider …

Think about a different relationship: one in which you’re struggling. Maybe there’s outright conflict, perhaps you’re not feeling accepted or acknowledged, or maybe you just want more.

What does the space between hold in this relationship?

And then …

How can you use what you’ve learned to improve the relationship? Is there an energy you’d like more of in the space between – or less of – or in addition to?

For most of us, this is a very different way of experiencing relationships. Give yourself some time to play with what you discover – and time to see how you can change the relationship by changing what you contribute to the space between.

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What you’re not taught (but should learn)

Happy poster-paint children's handsWhy aren’t communication, negotiation, and conflict management skills taught in school?

Starting in grade school. And in high school. And college. As a requirement, not an elective.*

We leave school and wander off into the rest of our lives, mostly unskilled in the art of relationships, connection, negotiation, and real communication.

The ability to have hard conversations is a keystone for professional success and happy relationships. Yet we’re expected to “just know” how to do it – perhaps because we know how to string words together into a sentence?

As you can tell, this fundamental unpreparedness that most of us deal with throughout our careers and our lives is a hot-button item for me. There’s no excuse for it.

Just imagine what the world would be like today if everyone who had attended school had taken required programs in interpersonal communication and basic empathy!

What can we do?

Learn now.

Read books.

Avoid scripted formulaic responses. Study people.

Practice. Be willing to make mistakes. Be vulnerable.

And please, help your children learn.

Not sure where to start? Try this practice from the blog few weeks ago. You can use it with your kids, and have conversations with them about what they observe.


* This is not to say that interpersonal communication programs don’t exist, because of course they do. What I’m objecting to is that these are elective programs or specializations at the college or university level. What’s severely lacking are foundational interpersonal studies, “let’s all learn to get along” classes, starting at the grade school level and on through high school, required classes that students must take and pass in order to graduate.

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Are ghosts and zombies real?

ZombieAre you a fan of horror movies and flesh-eating zombie shows?

I’m not.

Perhaps (and I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek) this is because I deal with so many real ghosts and zombies in my work … and, just like anyone else, in my personal life.

Because ghosts and zombies are definitely real. They will haunt you, and they do eat your brains.

Obviously (I hope!) I’m not talking about the paranormal remnants of once-living people.

I’m talking about the ways in which our past experiences, going back as far as we can remember (and even further), impact our present-day relationships.

For instance:

A client with an unpredictably quick-to-anger mother is now hyper-defensive against the potential anger of her colleagues. She tells me of her tendency to over-react and her feelings of shame and embarrassment for being, as she puts it, “so unreasonable.”

Another client with a constantly-critical mother is slowly recovering her ability to acknowledge herself for making progress and doing the best she can. She regrets how quickly she deflects compliments and expressions of respect for what she’s achieved.

And another client is quick to defend his space and his needs, protecting himself from long-past relationships where others demanded much and gave little. He speaks of wanting to be a better person and open himself to empathy for the important people in his life – people who give much and for whom he wants to do more.

No one is immune from ghosts and zombies. I have my own, which haunt me into unwillingness to ask for help when I need it – and, even more, into feeling ashamed of wanting support.

We are all haunted by painful experiences from our past.

The key is to remember: that was then; this is now.

The old feelings are painful. The fear these ghosts and zombies arouse is real. BUT … that was then, and this is now.

Pause. Breathe. Fact-check yourself. Is what went on then actually going on now, or has your brain been eaten by old bad memories?

And while it can be helpful to tell the person who’s being impacted by your haunting – the person who’s here, now – what’s going on for you, it’s not necessary (and, of course, often not appropriate).

Instead, you can take a lesson from Harry Potter, and tell your personal ghosts and zombies just how riddikulus they are.

Riddikulus!

(For those not familiar with the Harry Potter series, here’s a brief explanation of the riddikulus charm.)

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