Communication skills alone may not solve problems, but seldom can problems be solved without them. Despite requiring good communication skills to thrive in our relationships, we do not seem particularly well designed to deliver the basics. Especially when there are strong emotions involved.
The Power Struggle
Isn’t “their” need to be right a little silly, when we all know “you are right”?
Validating another person’s feelings can create miracles. The problem is that people haven’t been taught how.
Below are the instructions on how to validate and empathize with another person’s feelings. Remember, this doesn’t mean you agree or that they are right. It is an emotional intelligence skill that increases connections which leads to common ground and solutions based thinking.
INSTRUCTIONS (adapted from Barbara Reichlin’s work)
Before you even engage in a conversation, decide that you want this relationship to continue and that you are looking for healing or solutions. Whatever language suits you best. Then leave your ego at the door!
As your partner speaks, listen without interrupting until he/she pauses or until you ask them to pause.
2- MIRROR: “What I heard you say is . . . . .”
Repeat back everything your partner says without significantly adding to it, nor taking away from it. Be mindful of your tone of voice remaining neutral and curious. Paraphrasing is fine but be careful not to put in your two cents worth until the other person feels heard and is open to hearing you. Now is NOT the time to state how you feel. When you ask a question or insert a comment, it can become directive and about your agenda and you fall back into the power struggle.
Check to make sure you correctly mirrored all that your partner said by asking short questions like “Did I get that?” Or, “Did I get you?” If your partner clarifies or corrects something, listen, then mirror again. Continue until your partner says you got it.
Don’t take what they are saying personally or this part will feel endless and trip you into your ego’s need to be right. However, if they are attacking you, tell them you want to hear their feelings but to please not say “You are this… or You think that… or You always…” Ask them to stick to how THEY feel not who or what YOU are. When feelings are strong and people’s needs haven’t been met, it is easy to judge. Be the bigger person be choosing to be forgiving and redirect them to be constructive.
Check for completeness. “Did I get it all?” Mirror any additions your partner makes. If they are overwhelming you and going in different directions, tell them you want to keep it bite sized for now and you want to know if you got “this” part right.
Remember, validation is not about agreement. Rather, it is about letting the other know that what they are saying makes sense from their point of view.
Work example: “I can see how giving Barbara the afternoon off so she could go to a school play while telling you that you couldn’t leave early last Thursday for a banking appointment felt unfair to you. Your feelings make sense.”
Home example: “I can see how when I didn’t say ‘hi’ to you after I came home last night; you thought I was mad at you. That makes sense.”
If something your partner says doesn’t make sense, ask them to help you understand by asking them to say more about that. “Help me understand, could you say more about . . . ” Remember, this is about being clear on their feelings. If you are digging for information to use against them later, that is ego and will give you a terrible reputation at work (people do talk you know) or will destroy the important relationships in your life.
“I can imagine that you might be feeling . . . . (angry, hurt, scared, frustrated, etc.).”
To empathize means to imagine what another person is feeling about what they are saying or experiencing. Feelings can be distinguished from thoughts in that feelings can generally be described in one word: hurt, excited, hopeful, etc.
If you have trouble empathizing, try to imagine how it might feel if the tables were turned. Or, try to recall a time when someone did something to you that is similar to what your partner is describing now. Although you may well have reacted somewhat differently than your partner, you can still utilize your memory of that experience to help you understand and empathize with your partner’s feelings.
Once someone feels heard and respected, two things generally happen. They may tell you that maybe its not such a big deal and they can move onto more constructive behaviours. The second thing that can happen is they feel safe to tell you what they need in the future. Either way, things move forward with more calmness and clarity.
These skills may be alien to many of us. When we are hearing strong emotions, we may feel attacked and want to attack back or want to run away and hide. In important relationships we want to keep and improve, neither of those coping skills work over the long term.
When working in a competitive environment, discern the important relationships and don’t engage with those who seem to have a hidden agenda. If everyone you are around has a hidden agenda, it’s time to go speak to someone for support and guidance.
When the goal is to elevate your communication skills by finding common ground with the person you want to work with or keep in your life; learning to listen, mirror, summarize, validate and empathize will label you an effective leader and/or a valued friend.
Do you have a secret weapon of communication?
What have you said effectively to someone who is upset that has successfully opened the conversation to finding solutions? I would love to hear your experiences below.