Ouch! That Hurt!

Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!
Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!

It amazes me sometimes the things that are said and done by people, supposedly for the help and benefit of others, but which are frankly rude, hurtful and/or damaging. I have recently been a witness to a very unpleasant exchange that has arisen between two “friends” and it is a stark reminder that intentions, motivations, values and perspectives can be very different and play a powerful role in our communications with others. In an exchange of emails one of the participants sought to take a rational path, clarifying perspective by stating their intentions, explaining their motivations, and seeking open dialogue to work through any misunderstanding. Everything was written from an “I feel…” or “My intention was…” perspective. The response was condemning and written as “It is obvious you felt…”, “I know your intentions were…” and fascinatingly accused the first person of being aggressive. I was involved as a coach to the first person, in this instance not to help the relationship but to work through the issues and achieve some positive personal outcome for the hurting individual.

Communications with others is full of opportunity for misunderstanding. In entering a dialogue with others we bring a wealth of personal experience, cultural and personal values, aspirations and intentions, and personality styles. We may be quiet and aloof, bold and brash, warm and welcoming, or any number of other possibilities. And then there is how we view the other and what they have to offer a given situation. Even on a good day, when we put real thought and effort into what we are communicating, and in thinking through how best to present our message, there are misfires, and there can be major breakdowns and misunderstandings. If we fire off messages in an emotional frenzy the likelihood of a positive outcome is LOW.

Relevant to the example I introduced, some principles in communicating that can help create a positive outcome are:

Choose the appropriate medium for your communication. Is it appropriate? Will it maximise your chances of sending a clear, unconfused message that will be understood by the recipients. Do not fall into the trap of believing that sending a clear message means it will be understood. Breakdowns in communication can and do occur with the sender and/or the receiver at any given time.

When communicating the message we send is conveyed 55% non-verbally (i.e. through body language), 38% vocally (e.g. our tone and where we place emphasis) and 7% through the words we use. How many of us resort to using email as our primary means for communicating? We have already reduced our bandwidth for information to 7% of what is possible, assuming we send the perfect message. If you consider the TXTing mentality that is now so prevalent, with its encrypted messages, short forms that are not equally understood, and lack of punctuation, the ability to communicate can only be reduced further still.

If what you need to convey is important or there are sensitive issues or emotional issues around the content, carefully consider a face-to-face meeting which maximises the possibility for understanding, or a phone call that at least maintains verbal content as well as the words.

We live in an information age AND we are really appalling communicators. Don’t let technology lull you into a false sense of comfort about the message you are sending or that the recipients are receiving. What you send as a message IS NOT necessarily what they receive!

Neutralise Emotion – internally and expressed. When hurt or angry, walk away and wait a day to respond, if possible (not so easy in a face-to-face situation, but still may be a valid option). As a minimum, take a deep breath, find your own centre of balance and consciously choose the outcome you want from a message you are sending before speaking or writing.

Own your own feelings and express them as “I feel…” There is no condemnation of the other person if you own your feelings and express them as yours. Of course if you state they made you feel something you are hitting a difficulty. Remember: no one else can make you feel anything. You choose your feelings. The choosing may not be obvious but it is true. For example, someone hits you. How do you feel? It depends. If the person is or has a history of aggression towards you, says “I hate you” and punches you in the face the result may be anger. If a person is thrashing around on the floor in an epileptic fit and in the throes of their fit their fist hits you in the face, you may feel startled, possibly some compassion, but are less likely to feel angry. Circumstance, perspective and values contribute to the feelings you experience. They are your feelings. No one else made you feel them. Something happened. You interpreted the situation. A signal was generated from your brain and a feeling experienced. By owning your feelings you have a choice of changing them and of harnessing them to enhance your personal power.

Assign your own importance to feedback received. Most of us want others to be happy with us. We learn from the moment we are born that if we please others we are more likely to get what we want, or at least have a better experience of life. When we learn that someone is displeased with us the reaction can be pronounced as we struggle with our apparent failing. From this perspective we place a high value on negative feedback, and often overlook and quickly dismiss the positive.

An important phase of personal growth is when we shift our measures of success as a person internally and base it on our intentions, our motivations, the values we hold and outcomes we sought, and less on what others say to and about us, negative or positive. With a solid internal touchstone, we can receive external assessments of who we are, how we are viewed and judged, and compare them against our own assessment. Consider there may be truth in anything we receive, but not necessarily, and do not accept negative (or even positive) feedback simply because it has been given.

Feedback can be provided for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • to offer constructive critique
  • to create motivation to change
  • to unsettle and create opportunity for a victory
  • to be spiteful and deliberately hurtful.

Just because feedback has been given by someone does not mean you have to receive it. Positive feedback from someone greasing your palms because they want something is of less value than honest negative feedback from any source. When we are still caught in the need for external approval we like to be surrounded by those who shower us with adoration and struggle when negative comments are made. We may feel devastated when false accusations or assaults on our character are made. As we internalise the touchstone for personal assessment, and we base approval on our values etc, feedback from others becomes information to receive, consider, discard or keep and use as appropriate. I have learned that my integrity does not always need defending. I used to vociferously defend any accusation made against me, felt terrible that someone could consider I was “bad”, and then one day an acquaintance said, “Why do you need to defend your integrity?” Wow! That took me back. I realised that I did out of a feeling of inadequacy and lack of self-esteem. Sometimes integrity does need defending. That is what positive use of anger is all about, but sometimes it is enough to know I am integral and in knowing that the other person has no power over me in that instance.

Next time you receive a message, verbal, written or TXTed that inflames you:

  • Consider what result you want from your response
  • Neutralise your emotion in forming and sending the response
  • Consciously determine the merits and significance of any personal feedback received. Keep the worthwhile and discard the dross.

In all circumstances, consider meeting face-to-face or at least picking up a phone rather than relying only on such ineffective communications media as email or TXTing.

May all your communications be fog free! These are some ways of creating and maintaining clarity in communications with the people you interact with.

You “Should” “Just” Do It

"Just": Only This
“Just”: This and Only This

Anyone who has read my book, “Appreciate The Fog: Embrace Change with Power and Purpose”, will be aware that I believe the words we choose can be empowering or dis-empowering. “Should” is a strongly coercive word, and whether instructing someone else, or directing it at ourselves, it has the effect of removing choice. It dictates the path that must be followed with a veiled threat if not performed as required. It is a word often associated with shame. A manager speaking to a subordinate with “should” is edging on, if not already immersed in, micromanaging. “Should” stifles creativity and spontaneity, establishes expectation, and those hearing that word argue with the predetermined at their peril. “Should” requires us to park our intelligence at the door and follow the prescribed path, irrespective of how unproductive, futile or irrelevant the instruction seems to us. Replacing “should” with “could” opens the possibility for new ideas, innovation, testing and challenging of the status quo, or of the proposed request, and allows a degree of freedom that is unavailable with “should”. Such a small change in word can lead to a significant shift in meaning.

The adverb “just”, another word I frequently hear myself using, is similarly problematic. Meaning “exactly, precisely; actually; closely, close”, “just” can be used to box or contain ideas and expression. Often when we use “just” we don’t mean it. The effect is to suggest precision in what we are saying and that only what is being proposed or stated is the case. “Just” impedes us from engaging in a deep and meaningful manner. Stevie Wonder’s song “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, a song I love hearing, is a classic example. If he truly just called to say “I love you”, he would hang up as soon as he said it. Preposterous, but that is what the line means. Read the rest of the song. There is so much more he wishes to convey. If the song was “I Called to Say I Love You”, there is no similar exactness, and it “unjustifiably” allows more to be said. Using “just” in this way creates an emotional escape hatch, putting an artificial limit on the conversation. While we may say more, “just” signals that what is coming is all there is. “Phew! I said that. Now I may say something more.” It is highly habituated in everyday use. I hear myself using it and cringe, and then ask myself “What am I afraid of? If I were to fully express myself here and now , what would I say?” That has the effect of connecting me with what is going on within me, and freeing me up to be more fully present and authentic in expressing myself. That, I find, is highly productive to the relationship I am in at that moment.

A related favourite is “I just wanted to say…” That may be followed by “I love you”, “I cherish our friendship”, “I find you incredibly annoying” or any number of possibilities. In using “wanted to” the sentiment has not actually been delivered, only the suggestion it is there to be said. It is a safety mechanism used to test the waters without fully committing to the statement. I have been known to respond with: “Are you going to actually say that to me?” The common response is a somewhat startled or perplexed expression. Recognition of what was said and its meaning often leads to a cognitive shift, with a fresh statement being uttered that is more fully aligned with their real intent. Such a shift often relates to what is referred to as an “ah ha” moment.

And then words like “always” and “never” are absolutes that are rarely the real truth in terms of how we use them. “It always rains on my day off.” That may feel true sometimes when weather is inclement for several weekends in a row, but it isn’t actually true. Such absolutes are may be used to artificially end debate or to express a global belief that the speaker holds. Usage often highlights a black and white, on or off, blinkered view of the subject, where colour or shades of grey are not recognised or acknowledged. The effect is to contain the dialogue, dismiss uncertainty, and to ensure distance from feeling, opinion and connection.

I am not suggesting that every use of these words is wrong. Rather I am offering that what we say, including the specific words we choose, can have significant and unexpected consequences in our communications. Taking time to reflect on the message we wish to convey and ensuring our words, tones and gestures are aligned and support our intent can assist us be clear about what matters to us, and reduce the risk that we gloss over something important. “I just called because I wanted to say I love you”. I just called to say I love you”. “I called to say I love you.” “I love you.” If your significant other was on the phone speaking to you, assuming love is part of the expression of your relationship, which of those phrases would you prefer to hear?

Our brain does hear what we say, and does pick up on the nuances, even if we don’t consciously recognise them ourselves. Coercive or constraining language does impact our performance, our experience, our attitude, and the meaning we make and take from our experiences. As we choose language that is more fully aligned with our intentions, our capacity to realise the results we seek increases. As a coach one of the areas I attune to are the words and messages of the coachee, and whether their thoughts, feelings and actions are aligned with their declared aspirations. Take some time to check on what you are communicating and if it is “just as it should be.”

An Alternative to Giving Advice

Holding a coaching conversation
Conversing about possibilities and generating insights

It is so easy to offer advice when asked for input. In many cases it feels fantastic being asked, and sometimes even when not asked, to offer a ready solution and send the other person on their way with a greater sense of how much you know and is needed. Sometimes the advice is given at the first hint of what the solution might be, not taking the time to hear the person out, because “it is so obvious” and after all “that is what they want”.

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to offer advice, examples being: You are the subject matter expert and they specifically need your expertise that they do not possess themselves and cannot develop easily in the time available.

Hmm, that’s about it.

However, there is an alternative to advice giving that, while taking more time and effort, offers great rewards both to the provider and the seeker of guidance: having a coaching conversation.

With a coaching conversation your responsibility as the provider is to enable the growth and development of the seeker, while leaving responsibility for what action to take with the seeker. Give advice, and it is your solution, your approach, your responsibility, and there is no ownership by the seeker. By having a coaching conversation you facilitate the thought process of the seeker, open and extend their capacity to develop their own solutions, enable them to have “ah ha” moments of realisation from which they permanently own the insight and develop in them a greater sense of self-esteem. In general, the benefits to you as the provider include a rich and meaningful conversation, the knowledge that someone else has left your space with greater capacity within themselves, and most likely you have strengthened the relationship with and the loyalty of the seeker to you.

At its heart, the coaching conversation is a dialogue in which you, as the provider, listen for understanding and potential, use questions to discover and extend the seeker’s thought process, provide open, clear, balanced and honest feedback, and facilitate the conversation so it remains on track. It does require ready solutions to be parked, for you to value the seeker as someone worth your time and investment, and for you to develop your capacity to truly be with someone else instead of caught up in what you need to do next.

As someone who is often approached for career advice, I vouch for the personal benefits of shifting tack and developing capacity to have coaching conversations. I experience a much deeper connection with and richer experience of people with whom I have such conversations. I enjoy my shift of attention being from “being right” in the advice I give, and all the responsibility that goes with that, to the appreciation of the qualities and capabilities of the person I am conversing with, and recognising the genuine intent within them to perform as well as possible. It is a refreshingly different and exciting place to function from. Anyone can occupy this space.

What motivates you and strengthens your desire and capacity to perform? Of the people who have had the most profound and positive impact on your development, what were the key qualities they exhibited?

If you find yourself offering advice, what factors are you aware of that encourage this behaviour? Do you have any interest in strengthening being less advice-giving? If so, what could you do to bring about that change within yourself?