Communicate without blame
Today's podcast and blog topic: Communicate without blame. Here's the podcast link (podcast - listening time 1 hour). Strong communication skills can help in all aspects of life, from personal relationships to education and professional success. In the workplace, I have found that I am often frustrated when I believe co-workers, network partners, and even supervisors do not use basic communications principles that can make them more effective in their work relationships. To be honest, in all my years of working and cultivating and trying to sustain relationships, I have found that most people don’t want to talk about how to make their interpersonal communications better. Or, they don’t care. Or, they are simply blissfully unaware that they are not good at it (...and they may want to keep it that way. Afterall, it’s hard work!) I realize that when I am being critical of their communication skills, or what I perceive as a lack thereof, I am making silent judgments in my head that can be harmful to having effective communication! I also realize that you cannot make others learn more or do better. Most importantly, I realize that I am likely contributing to the breakdown or frustration in some way. In fact, it is often the case that the person with whom I am experiencing frustration is NOT frustrated at ALL. Nope. They are completely unaware. They don’t have the problem. I do. What does this mean? This means that, when I analyze or unpack this phenomenon in my life, I conclude that I am criticizing people for not giving me what I myself am afraid OR unable to ask for. Wait, what? My hypothesis is: if I am not successful in getting what I need or having a good exchange with someone I want to be in relationship with, it may be because I myself am not good at or assertive enough about asking for what I need! Wait, what? Hang in here with me a little bit.
I am going to explain, by investigating the topic of how to communicate without blame . And, hence, get better at turning my own frustration into a request for a need to get met. If you are reading or listening to this, and you already have effective interpersonal communications in your closest relationships, you probably don’t worry about the mechanics of what I am trying to break down here today. You may even find this work laughable. Or basic. Or, elementary. Lucky you. But I think that most of us struggle with this stuff. We really have to study it, talk about it, and practice some sample words and scenarios to be able to get better at this! You may not WANT to get better at this. I don't blame you! Another direction you could take is to decide that it would be TOO MUCH WORK to extend yourself to those whose styles or personalities are more challenging. Let’s face it, it might simply be easier to just let those relationships go. As my 89-year-old mother advises, resignedly: hey, “IT IS WHAT IT IS.” In any event, since I don’t have it in me to do nothing, I usually try to get better at this stuff by taking my cues from my feelings — if I feel “frustrated,” that is likely a sign that something is wrong or that there is something I need to work on. I am willing to work on myself, and as I learn, I am willing to help those I am in relationships with (or those who want to learn with me) — let’s try to stay in these important, connected and meaningful relationships. Let’s work on our communication and needs together in a way that encourages harmony and sustains us, rather than separates or depletes us. So, what about the exercises or challenges that we are going to “try on” today? I have two (2) challenges or examples today, and a list of 5 things you can do at the end. Let’s look at some examples from both professional and personal situations where you can learn to communicate WITHOUT blame. How can we get to the point where we understand what it is we really want to ask for…to uncover what it is that we really WANT…and to get past the frustrations, hurt, anger, or disappointment that we stack up in our heads? Those bad feelings, negative energy and stressors, just pile up and pile up and our relationships and quality of life are affected. Our physical health is affected. Our mental and spiritual health is affected. And, such dysfunctions can keep us separated from those with whom we want close or ongoing connections—we end up accomplishing the very thing we want to avoid! How do we get to a place where we can request to have our needs met… …rather than stay stuck in these patterns of “RESENTMENT?” —------------------ Let’s look at some examples. The two scenarios I am exploring are (1) in the workplace, and (2) in personal relationships. Here we go… THE PROBLEMS WORKPLACE EXAMPLE
Here is the essential question that we have framed today:
How do I go from frustration and resentment…to understand why I am frustrated or where those feelings are coming from…and make my own communication more effective? —------------------ The problem: I’d like for people I work with, or people I want to work with, to respond to my emails when I need a decision from them, when there is an action they can take, or when I desire their creative contribution or decision-making in a process or an outcome for which I am responsible at work. When they fail to respond, fail to respond in a timely manner, only partially respond, or respond in an unhelpful manner…in MY MIND, they are keeping me from my goals. When this unhealthy mind trap of mine starts, my emotions rise. I am feeling frustrated. I start imagining the worst. Assigning blame. Being critical in my head about the other person. When such a challenge arises, here are some common MENTAL traps I have noticed that I may have or thoughts I may jump to, which are not helpful. Seeing the other person as an adversary or as someone who has you stymied, or is preventing your progress. Seeing them as wrong. Seeing them as bad at their job, incompetent, or bad at professional communication. Seeing them as disrespectful. (Of you. Of your time, your efforts.) Seeing them as egotistical, arrogant, uncaring, inattentive…all kinds of negative attributes. Besides my example of the lousy email exchanges, what are some behaviors that may trigger or cause you to jump to “stinking thinking” about that person or making assumptions about their behavior? What about when… … someone makes a remark that you receive as unhelpful or even offensive. …someone is not listening, interrupts you mid-sentence, or walks away during a conversation. …someone is talking just out of earshot and starts to whisper. ..someone is holding onto a position, is being argumentative, and gets louder. From your own experiences, what do these bring up for you? During our podcast, Ms. Linda added, what about when they really don’t know what they are doing? “Follow me, but I don’t know what I’m doing!” they are saying/implying. (Sometimes people are put in positions they really aren’t qualified for!) This presents a whole other set of considerations but I ask you to still rise above…be the bigger person. Don’t assume the worst of them, just consider that they are human and may be aware of their own struggles but may not be able to fix them, articulate them, or even admit them…they are, afterall, just human. People aren’t generally good at this stuff!! —------------------ In just a bit, I am going to provide some proposed solutions or techniques, but first let’s explore a personal example, to keep expanding on this idea, but taking it from a workplace situation to an interpersonal relationship or personal communication situation. Stay with me… PERSONAL EXAMPLE Ok, here’s the same question or prompt as before, to get us back to center: How do I go from frustration and resentment…to understand why I am frustrated or where those feelings are coming from…and make my own communication more effective? —------------------ The problem: I’d like for my partner to let me know how he feels about me. I need affirmation occasionally, using words , because, well…one of the most dramatic positive signs of recognition, acknowledgement, or appreciation we can experience as human beings is for some other significant person in our life to tell us what they see in us, or what we mean to them, or what they value about having us in their life! I need this when I am feeling separated emotionally, or when I am overtaxed with other things in my life, or when I desire to feel closer or want physical intimacy. When my partner fails to acknowledge how he feels about me, fails to understand why it’s important to me, only partially responds, or responds only when I complain about it…in MY MIND, my partner is dismissing me, or does not love me, or does not respect my needs. Why can’t he just give me this one little thing? When this unhealthy mind trap of mine starts, my emotions rise. I am feeling frustrated. I start imagining the worst. Assigning blame. Being critical in my head about the other person. Or, a really bad learning behavior of mine is to withdraw from my partner, to want to break up the relationship, or to look elsewhere for the affirmation or emotional connection. When such a challenge arises, here are some common MENTAL traps I have noticed that I may have or thoughts I may jump to, which are not helpful: Seeing the other person as an adversary or as someone who is uncaring. Seeing them as narcissistic. Seeing them as bad at relationships, incompetent, or bad at interpersonal communication. Seeing them as disrespectful. (Of you. Of your time, your efforts.) Seeing them as egotistical, arrogant, inattentive…all kinds of negative attributes. Seeing them as aloof, or distant…or even worse, seeing them as a cheater, someone who is not able to give you what you need, but because you are not getting it from them, you may start to imagine SOMEONE ELSE IS getting that from them. Similar to the frustrations that I experience when my partner does not tell me how he feels about me, or why he values me, what are some other challenging personal relationship communications or behavioral patterns you have experienced? What about when… … your partner makes a remark that you receive as unhelpful or even offensive. …your partner is not listening, interrupts you mid-sentence, or walks away during a conversation. …your partner avoids the opportunity to discuss how to make things better between you, or becomes defensive when you express your desires. …your partner protects the privacy of his/her cell phone. [KB note: Which, by the way, they have a right to individual privacy of all kinds…it’s a matter of mutual trust, and maintaining healthy individual boundaries. There is a difference between being “private” and being “possessive” with your cell phone. When you are protective, you are setting good boundaries. “If you don’t go through mine, I won’t go through yours” is one kind of tacit agreement a couple can make in order to keep that space from being an issue. It’s a slippery slope once you start crossing those boundaries! How many movies have you seen in the past 10 years where the characters on the screen are checking out one another’s private text messages, or the private email accounts of their partner, only to discover some horribly painful truth or betrayal they had no idea about?! Why let your relationship decay to the point where you have to resort to such manipulations? That's why we work on these trust and communication issues--or "inputs"--so that you each can help improve satisfaction in the relationship, and hopefully mutually commit to avoid the behavior that leads to dreadful outcomes! Let’s say you have made an agreement with your partner such as the one above: Why would a couple agree to not look at one another’s personal cell phones? Ostensibly, you do it because you would like to think that your partner has nothing to hide. THEY would like to think that YOU have nothing to hide. YOU BOTH would be devastated to find out otherwise. So do you look at their phone, untrusting? Or, do you ask you if there is anything on their cell phone that you would be devastated to see? Or, do you remain silent and trust that there is nothing because you have discussed that such a thing would be a dealbreaker and that is the end of us? You could have something to hide, or, worse, you could be punishing your partner for crossing the boundary themselves, or you could be feeding a personal paranoia by implying mistrust, and on an on…! But that’s another topic for another day! I digress...!] THE SOLUTIONS Thanks for hanging in there while we explored the CHALLENGES we experience and the MENTAL TRAPS we fall into. If we are the persons who can make the change, how in the world do we go about changing our mental traps, or changing our mindsets, or approaches to these frustrations when we encounter them? Here are a couple of mindsets or approaches you may find helpful to counter those traps.
I’ve just got 5 items on the list today! 1.Approach the other person NOT as an obstacle, but as a problem-solving partner.
It is fairly common for people to (unfairly, I might add) mentally assign to other people some kind of character flaw, negative personality attribute, or lack of ability. People jump to sort of name-calling in their heads. Thoughts like: “if he just wasn’t so lazy,” or “man, what a slow poke,” or “she’s not as bright as I thought she was,” or “she’s never in her office, so what does she do in her job?” or “gosh, his desk is a mes, how does he get his work done,” and the like…
Instead of labeling/judging the other person as “lazy,” “slow,” “dumb,” “irresponsible,” or “disorganized” as in the examples above, try to approach the other person as a problem-solving partner.
I found myself confronting this idea recently when I went to my local Toyota dealer’s service bay to have a “Maintenance Required” warning light code diagnosed on my 2005 Prius.
When I walked into the service office after parking my car in the service bay, there was a ton of lunch food waste on one of the two service desks in the shared office space. My first thought was, “oh my gosh, how is this allowed in a place where the public walks in, why hasn’t someone cleaned up this mess?” It was about 1:30pm at the time. But my next thought, and the overriding sentiment that guided my communications with them was to stay fixed on my goal of either troubleshooting the error code there, if allowable, or setting an appointment for service for when I’ll be off work at the latter part of next week for the Christmas holiday season. AND, to see them as problem-solving partners. So, I quickly pushed aside the negative pattern of thinking that popped up first, and forgot about it like it hadn’t even occurred to me, or that it wasn’t really a problem at all that there was half-eaten food, paper food wrappings, bags, smelly stuff scattered everywhere, lol! Certainly it wasn’t MY problem, anyway. One of those patterns is to automatically mentally judge though, isn’t it? And, you can be tempted, again, to discount or think less of others and their abilities or to want to be critical or correct their behavior!
When you see yourself wanting to jump to that old bad behavior, put up a big red STOP sign in your head. Try thinking of them as your problem-solving partner first.
2. Automatically give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Suspend judgment if you can.
I see this approach modeled effectively by my current boss at work where I serve as a consultant to innovators who are developing new products and trying to bring them to market. I am trying to learn to do what my supervisor does: we've talked about how she does not automatically jump to the conclusion that someone “means” something by the way they say something, or "by the words they use." In other words, don't assume the worst or take offense, or assign some unknown/unhelpful motive or intention behind their words if they happen to hit you wrong in that moment. What a concept! What a relief and how much does it "uncomplicate" things if you decide: Don’t take things personally. Don’t assume they mean you harm. Most people really aren’t that careful about what they say, and they don’t take the time to consider how what they say could “land” on you. Afterall, learning to communicate in a way that carefully considers context, interest, background, sensibilities and acting with "other-focused" care is a basket of higher-level communication skills. MOST PEOPLE AREN’T GOOD AT THIS. But that does not mean that their intentions are BAD. They quite possibly have NONE of the negative traits or dubious intentions that YOU are attributing to them in your head. And yet, YOU feel hurt by them. That may be because you have assigned some motive for them, without knowing the truth. That may be because you have expectations for a higher order of thinking and being that they are just not capable of. That may be because you have all this bad learning, socialization from the past, and negative thinking patterns that have affected your ability to trust others or believe the best of them. Yuck. Why do we torture ourselves this way? We feel horrible, and the other person is oblivious to our feelings. More than that, we could be entirely wrong about their truths…or why they do the things they do, or say the things they say. Simply suspend judgment. Don’t jump to conclusions or imagine the worst. Give the other person, and your SELF a break! 3. Turn your frustration into an “ask.” You have to be clear and concise about your ask. Make your message as easy to consume as possible to reduce the chance of misunderstandings, to speed up projects or decision-making, and to help others quickly understand your goals. Instead of speaking (or emailing or texting) in long, detailed sentences, practice reducing your message down to its core meaning. While providing context is helpful, it's best to give the most necessary information when trying to communicate your idea, instruction or message. Once you’ve done that, go for the “ask.” By that I mean: ask A VERY SPECIFIC AND SHORT QUESTION! You have a better chance of getting what you want not by making others read your mind, or by complaining or being resentful or blaming, but by framing your complaint or frustration in a REQUEST. Don’t fret: simply ASK. 4. Explain the reason for a request, even if you think it’s obvious. Research in social psychology has revealed that many people respond more positively to explained requests than to unexplained requests. This is true, even when the supposed explanation is obvious or doesn’t actually explain much of anything. Take a look at these two ways of expressing requests: what is the difference in the way you receive them: “Will you please open the window?” “Will you please open the window so that we can get more fresh air in here?” — “May I please have a glass of water?” “May I please have a glass of water? I’m really thirsty!” — “Will you please answer the email I sent you this morning?” “Will you please answer the email I sent you this morning? There are a couple of key decisions and opinions I need from you in order to meet my quarterly report deadline later this week.” See the difference between the first statement and the second, which includes an explanation or reason, in the quotes above? By simply offering a rational reason, your words can be received as NOT a DEMAND (putting someone on the defensive) bur rather, as an unvarnished REQUEST (something that would not be seen as unreasonable by a reasonable person)! 5. Listen and affirm anything that you can agree on. This is really hard. How do you do this? Make your goal to learn what the speaker thinks and feels, not to change what the speaker thinks and feels. Pay special attention to the speaker’s feelings. And if you are physically in front of them, pay attention their body language — the “non-verbal” cues. Aim to understand what the speaker means, not just what they say . Here are some positive ways to respond or to demonstrate affirmation, or even possibly agreement: What I hear you saying is…” “I sense that you feel…” “It seems like you feel…” Examples of shared values affirmations include: “I sense we share the desire to do what is right” “I appreciate your honesty” “It seems we both care deeply about our children’s futures” “We both seem to agree that xxx” “I agree with what you said about…” So, I guess that’s it. To sum it up: Honestly assess if you are being clear in your communications and figure out WHAT and HOW to ask rather than “blame” or complain (or put yourself through pain or emotional upheaval or depletion). Focus on the actions you want to take and the actions you want others to take. Avoid falling into mental traps that are unhelpful to you and to those with whom you want to be in relationship with. See numbers 1-5 above! Practice these things. When you change, they change. And just a quick reminder to celebrate your YOU-ness! We can make the impossible, possible.