If you want to communicate effectively there’s one basic idea the comes before what you say or how you deliver your message.
It is this: In order tfor your message to reach another person (or people), you have to enter their world.’Their world’ consists of their assumptions, expectations, fears, feelings and more. What is real for them is what matters, not what is real for you.
Walk a mile in my shoes
The idiom ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ sums this up. It is simple to say, harder to grasp, and almost impossible to apply when the ‘message’ you are trying to convey is important to you.
Arguments are sustained because the protagonists are too busy pushing their own message to consider hearing and acknowledging of the other. When we feel misunderstood (as you do in an argument) we push hard, repeating ourselves, raising our voice (literally and metaphorically), and so on.
Consider this; if you are engaged in a conversation with someone and you notice that they are becoming insistent, repeating a point or phrase, getting louder etc., take it as information about their emotional state. However unreasonable their words may sound to you, the non-verbal information is telling you “This person doesn’t think I have heard them.”.
Like you, their first need is to feel heard and understood. You can break this cycle bu putting your own needs on one side for a moment (or longer), and taking the first step towards having your message heard by reducing the chances that they feel unheard.
At that point you have to momentarily ignore your own needs and ask yourself “What will let this person know that I understand their position and can empathise with it?”
Nature makes it difficult
You see why it’s hard to do? In a fight, Nature wants us to do battle; we are designed to stop listening when emotions are raised and to defend our position. It’s counter-intuitive to stop, listen and empathise, and it goes against the grain of our evolutionary programming.
There’s another complicating factor, which is that we are generally unsophisticated at appraising and managing our own feelings, specially when we are emotionally aroused.
Rather than stepping back and looking into ourselves and our own contribution to an argument (as we expect the other person to do), we will often create a ‘story’ that portrays us in a more favourable light. This is usually romanticised portrayal us as ‘wronged’, a ‘defender’ or some other kind of misjudged hero.
Look behind this facade we create for ourselves and you’ll see that this is our way of expressing our own feelings about not being heard. That’s just what you’ll see if you watch two people argue.
It’s what I have seen in my time as a family therapist and mediator; two people screaming “Listen to me” (literally or metaphorically). It’s painful to watch, particularly when you know that they are going about making themselves heard in entirely the wrong way.
The right way
Of course there is no single right way, but as a rule of thumb it’s useful to remember that you are responsible for making your message understandable by the other person. You have no automatic entitlement that they will understand; it’s up to you to fashion your message so that they ‘get’ it. In tense situations that will mean that you firt have to make it POSSIBLE for them to hear by reducing the tension.
You can reduce the tension by taking away the need for them to insist so loudly. They won’t need to insist if the feel they are being heard. When you decide to back off, to demonstrate your own openness, sincerity, and willingness to understand where they are coming from, you will be in control of the conversation.
Crossing a boundary
If have ever been in a country where you don’t speak the language, you’ll know how this works. The people there have no responsibility to understand your language For best results, you must communicate in theirs. If you can’t actually speak it, you’ll have to do the best you can. Willingness to understand beats arrogant assertiveness every time.
It’s not about right and wrong. It is only about having the wit and good sense to think “What needs to happen so that this person will know that I truly want to understand them?” Nothing else matters. If you really want your message to be heard, you have to gain entry to the heart and mind of your listener. Once you have built a platform where you can both discuss the problem safely, only then should you discuss the problem.
Ironically when you both get to this point you’ll often find that the problem never was the problem at all. It was something else, and you have already fixed that by listening to reach other.
Useful sayings to remember
“Walk a mile in my shoes”
“The problem is not the problem”
“I’d rather lose an argument than get into a long discussion in order to win it.”
“An argument is an attempt at dialogue by two deaf people.”