Let Go of Assumptions
For good reasons, we can easily default to our fears when we don’t feel that conversation is a safe form of interaction with others. We may feel that people are just waiting to judge, ridicule, humiliate, manipulate, or even dismiss what we want to say. When we do summon the courage to approach someone, if they avoid our attempts at making contact or seem unapproachable, we may think there’s something wrong with us. Realistically though, we know there are always “those” people who need to put others down to feel better about themselves. People who act this way are simply trying to keep the focus away from their own insecurities and deficiencies. Most people have some insecurities about conversation and communication. In fact, in different environments, they may have just as many of the same feelings of fear and awkwardness as we do; their defense mechanisms are simply different. They may shy away or seem guarded or curt because of their fears of conversation that have nothing to do with us at all.
Let’s consider the basic elements of conversation. One person shares information and ideally, the other person receives and processes the information, and provides feedback. This exchange of information and insights may go back and forth a few times, and ultimately a decision or understanding is achieved. Sounds good right? Sounds pretty easy. But we all know it’s not that straightforward. There really are only 2 things going on. One person talks; the other person listens. STOP LAUGHING!!! Most of us feel like people don’t listen to what we say, or that we’re simply not heard. There are also our own habits that can interfere with listening such as assuming we know what someone’s going to say, or mistakenly thinking we’ve been asked for advice. The biggest gift we can give to others is listening to what they have to say without judgment or the distraction of trying to plan what we’re going to say. Listening is the first skill to master on our path to gaining social confidence.
No one likes being told how they think or feel by someone else. For example, I might say “I’m feeling depressed today”. The response: “You’re not depressed, you’re just tired – take a nap!” Just the response I’m looking for right? …Not hardly! Much to the frustration of early caregivers, I haven’t napped a day in my life and now, I’m not just depressed; I’m annoyed! Reflective listening (RL) is the skill where we listen to what was said and then use keywords (depressed) from what was said, in our response to the other person. So, a better response:
RL: “I’m sorry you’re feeling depressed. Is there anything you feel like sharing?”
“Yes. It’s a beautiful weekend for a change, and I have to work!”
RL: “Working on the first beautiful weekend this year is rough. I can understand why you’re feeling down.”
Example 2. My spouse might say something like “I’d really like to go to Home Depot today.” My first response is likely: “You know I hate shopping at box stores!” Okay not supportive but in my head, I don’t want to go to a crowded store, I want to go for a bike ride.
A better response:
RL: “Do you really need my help at Home Depot?”
“Yes. I want to order the new countertops you want, but I’m not sure about the colors.”
RL: “I’d Love to come with you to Home Depot to look atcountertops. How would you feel about a bike ride afterward?”
Example 3. Your best friend calls and opens with: “I can’t do this anymore! I hate school, I hate the people, and this just seems so pointless! This is a really loaded opening dialog. First, we’ll look for the key emotion. In this case frustration is a theme and it has multiple keywords, school, people and pointless. We don’t need to prioritize yet, just reflect the prevalent emotion.
RL: “Wow. I really feel your frustration. It sounds like things are pretty rough right now.”
“You’ve got no idea! I am sick of my roommates, I’m trying to study for finals, and I think I’m in the wrong degree program.”
RL: “Alright. Let me make sure I’m getting all this. First, what’s going on with your roommates?”
“They’re done with the quarter so it’s party, party, party! I can get any studying done!
RL: “That’s tough. Is there anywhere else you could go to study? ….
Next concern: RL: “What else is going on with finals?
“I think I’m going to fail calculus. I’ve struggled all quarter, but no amount of tutoring has helped at all. I feel so stupid!”
RL: Calculus is a really difficult course.”
“It’s been really bad. I watch other students whip through it and I just get further behind in class.”
RL: “Are you behind in other classes?
“No. They’re fine, it’s just Calculus that’s killing me. But, it’s more than that. If I don’t pass Calculus I can’t stay with my major. I don’t think I even want to be in this program though. Everything I am learning leads to jobs I don’t want!”
RL: “That’s a lot of pressure and uncertainty. What’s your heart telling you to do now?”
“Well for now, at least take the exam, I guess. I probably need to go to the library to study though.”
RL: “The library sounds good. Once the quarter’s over maybe you could talk to advising or someone else who’s been through your program?”
These are different examples of RL conversations but there are common elements across these exchanges.
“I’m sorry you’re depressed”
“Do you need my help at Home Depot?”
“Wow. I really feel your frustration. It sounds like things are pretty rough right now.”
The first step is validation, clarification (or a combination of both) focused on what was said. The goal here is to get the person to share what’s on their mind, what they’re thinking and acknowledge how they’re feeling. Of utmost importance: These dialog exchanges are entirely focused on what the other person is sharing; their story. We want them to have a sense of our interest, respect, acceptance, appreciation, acknowledgement, safety, etc. We want them to just say what’s on their mind and tell their story. At no point in the RL dialog are we required to tell them what we think, what we feel, or anything else that might make us feel vulnerable. In fact interjecting with our stuff hijacks the RL process. If they ask our opinion, that’s entirely different and we’ll address that shortly.
By engaging with RL as a strategy we first offer validation and acknowledgement. We prompt the other person to talk about their stuff and we get to relax. The conversation focus is on them and their concerns. At some point though we want to be able to initiate conversation and we’ll use RL as we go along. This strategy of engagement takes practice, and it helps if you can find someone you trust to role-play and develop your own “go-to” safe topics.
Starting Conversations: Practice Questions for Role Play.
- If you could vacation anywhere in the world, where would you go?
- Where did you grow up?
- Do you eat here often? What’s your favorite park?
- If you could see any musician or band perform live…who would you choose?
- What’s your favorite sport? Team? Or…. do you have any hobbies?
- What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in this job? In this class?
- What’s one thing you’ve never done that you want to?
- At work: what do you think could help improve our workflow…schedule etc.?
After practicing these types of questions we’ll find that we can engage more easily with others. At some point though when we’re comfortable, we’ll want to be able to share what we are thinking or feeling.
Let’s say as a conversation unfolds, we’re feeling really defensive, annoyed, or hurt. We know from previous experience that we don’t want resentment to build. If we’re sure the other person is done talking, we can use the technique of summarizing. Summarizing is where we re-state what we’ve heard the other person says and then redirect to what we want to discuss. This conversation is between a wife and her airline pilot husband. He called from Japan to share he’ll be delayed again and has decided that in the future he’ll plan to fly trips to and from Frankfurt instead.
WIFE SUMMARY: Honey, I know you’re annoyed about the delay and Frankfurt’s a good plan. I’m feeling kind of overwhelmed though. I was hoping you could watch Danny tomorrow morning so I could get into work early.”
RL: “Overwhelmed doesn’t sound good. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m under a lot of pressure to bring on 4 more accounts by month end. Things have been really crazy and I’m afraid I’m not going to make the goal.”
RL: Wow, four more before month end is a lot! I understand the pressure you’re feeling. When I get home is there anything I can do to help?’
“If you can be chauffeur, cook and homework help for a few days that’d be a big help”
This might feel awkward at first, but ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED. This interchange highlights important aspects of communication; the willingness to understand what each person is experiencing, feeling, and thinking. Openness creates a safe space for dialog. RL and summarizing are great strategies as we gain verbal confidence.
The next skill to practice is validation (spontaneous or otherwise). Sometimes all we need to do is say:
- “That looks great on you!”
- “That was a fabulous dinner.”
- ‘Thank you for the text.”
One compliment may be all a person needs to feel appreciated and hopeful. In times of isolation, such as what we experienced through the pandemic (or northern winters), it’s vital to maintain social connectivity for our emotional health. Whether it’s in person or virtual, offering compliments, validation, humor and support keeps us socially connected. Being part of collective groups that emphasize inclusiveness is key to our developmental wellbeing. Our ancestors thrived on maintaining the culture of communities, tribes, and clans, to share resources, support and experience. While Independence is a prized “Western” mindset, interdependence and social connectivity lie deep within our social inheritance.
Our profound insights, experiences, and the intensity of our emotions tend to happen in the context of our interactions and experiences with people. Take a risk and offer appreciation! If you receive a compliment…say “Thank You!” or acknowledge what the person has said in some way. When we don’t accept compliments, we’re communicating to the other person that what they think or feel doesn’t matter. This is also not the time to say – “well I just feel fat!” They’re being vulnerable, telling us that they love, appreciate, and like us as we are, and we’re telling them that it’s not okay, or worse yet…drawing their attention to things they didn’t notice or even care about!