It is not just what I’m saying, it is who I’m being.
Over the past 6 years, I’ve spent a lot of effort learning about interpersonal communication, coaching and relationships. While I recognize that attaining mastery in anything is a lifelong process, I’ve always taken pride in how much I’d improved my communication skills. That is, until I screwed up and it all changed for me.
How I Got Here
Having worked in corporate finance for much of my career, communication skills wasn’t exactly something I had focused on. However, as I moved up the organization, and later when I started my own business in financial life planning, it became quite important that I learn to listen and to communicate effectively.
As part of my journey, I studied Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and attended summer retreats focused on NVC. I traveled around the world to learn Motivational Interviewing (MI) with its founders and their top trainers. I took Tony Robbins’ Leadership Academy and attended workshops on speech acts. I had learned a lot of techniques and worked to apply these techniques consciously and consistently.
I was still married at the time and my wife, who works in the healthcare industry, made plans to invite her physician and nurse co-workers over to work on a project involving COVID patients. The kids and I tidied up the house and prepared to receive guests. Unfortunately, a patient had a health emergency and my wife ended up staying at work late. At the time, she didn’t tell us that the plan changed and did not respond to my texts/calls. At first, I was worried but the worry turned into annoyance after I realized she’s fine.
The next morning, I wanted to have a conversation with her about what happened. As I prepared for that conversation, I reflected on what I had learned about communication and what I wanted to say.
- I believe that our actions ultimately support basic human needs that we all want to meet, e.g. security, autonomy, competence, meaning, etc. So, I wanted to approach the conversation with open ears to hear what her needs were.
- It is important to accept other people’s thoughts/emotions and help them feel heard. In those moments when people feel heard and accepted, they are able to lower their mental defenses and start to hear others. Acceptance does not mean agreement; this lowering of defenses can happen even when we disagree with the other person’s thoughts and emotions.
- My words do more than just communicate information. The words and sentences I use are actions that elicit certain of responses in the natural course of the conversation. For example, if I make a request, the natural responses are 1) yes, 2) no, 3) clarify/negotiate, or 4) give me time to think about it. I want to stay aware of what my verbal actions are accomplishing.
Using what I learned, I focused on how I’m feeling (upset, sad, uncared for, disrespected) and what I want (for her to let me know when things change). Finally, I asked for her thoughts and reaction to what I said. Her answer was that she felt lectured at.
This response was not a surprise, we’ve had similar exchanges in the past. I felt frustrated as I contemplated how to re-explain myself while helping her feel better. However, in that moment, a new question came up for me – why wasn’t I surprised by her response? Somehow, I expected that this would happen, which means that I came into this conversation expecting it to go poorly.
Something inside me knew that I was following the techniques but did not embody the spirit of communication.
It was a very humbling moment when I realized that all my skills are for naught, if my real intention wasn’t to have a conversation.
As I played back our conversation in my head, I saw that I was justifying my feelings as a result of her actions. Instead of communicating to build connection, I really just wanted her to see the consequences of her actions from my perspective. This mindset subverted everything I did and say so that I could not see that I am using communication techniques as a weapon against her.
No technique can help if my mindset is to talk “at” her.
Without the spirit of collaboration and acceptance, I was applying communication techniques “at” her instead of engaged in a conversation “with” her. In my rush to have her hear me, I raised her defensiveness and lowered her willingness to listen. Once her mind starts going “Yes, but…”, the conversation is over. Even if I am right, nothing changes if she cannot hear me.
So, I asked her if I could start over and shifted my focus to building connections with her. I still told her what it was like for me the night before but I didn’t make her responsible for my feelings. I listened to what she said without looking for something incriminating to throw back at her. I offered her time and space to think and feel about what I said without having to respond to me right away. When we finished talking, she looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “I guess what I did last night isn’t helping with the happy family life that I want to have.”
People have their own motivation for why they do things. If she doesn’t care about me, it won’t matter what I say. If she does care about me, I don’t need to rub her nose in what happened the night before. When I can communicate my feelings without escalating her defenses, she is more likely to have the mental and emotional resources to participate in finding a win-win solution.
As important as communication skills are, it’s frequently not “what I say” but “who I’m being” that has a greater impact on the outcome of my conversations. This requires a lot of self-awareness and is one reason that mindfulness exercise can be useful for better communication.
In the future, before engaging in difficult conversations, I resolve to take a few minutes to breath, determine where I am emotionally, and center myself as much as I can. With the overarching goal of better connection and relationship over time, I am more likely to have a conversation that leads to better outcomes for all the participants.