Conflict in relationships is inevitable. However, you can take some simple steps to reduce conflict in your relationships. The very title of this blog provides invaluable insight into reducing conflict in relationships: Let Their Words Do the Talking. To this wisdom, I would like to add to the following simple piece of advice: Let Your Ears Do the Hearing. This idea is drawn from a piece of first century wisdom that suggests, “Be swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19, King James Version)
Did I mention that this technique is simple? Well, it is simple in concept, but not always so simple in application. The reason for this is that many people simply do not want to expend the effort required to listen carefully and to understand what others are saying, especially those who are in close relationships. Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy, once suggested, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Our mothers reminded many of us that we have two ears and only one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk.
Why is it that many of us fail to be “swift to hear” with our significant others? We don’t listen carefully, because we subconsciously think we do not have to listen carefully. We normally realize we are in safe and familiar surroundings where we don’t have to expend the effort. It is in the outside world where we must be careful to listen and consider what others are communicating to us. At home or otherwise with our partners, we generally believe we can save the effort, run on auto-pilot, and recharge our batteries.
We not only tend to avoid the effort to understand when communicating with those closest to us, when we do think, the focus of our thinking is more often than not on what we are going to say and not on what they have said. When I teach communication skills to professionals, I often ask them what they think about after they make their first comment or ask their first question during a conversation. The most common response I get is “my next question or comment.” This response would equally apply to our conversations with our loved ones. Being “swift to hear and slow to speak” with those closest to us requires that we focus first on what they are saying and then on how we will respond.
Constructing empathic statements is a simple way to let the people you care about know that you are listening to them. Empathic statements keep the focus on the other person. Because people are typically focused on themselves, they feel good about themselves when others make them the center of attention. Empathic statements capture a person's verbal message, physical status, or emotional feeling, and, using parallel language, reflects that verbal message, physical status, or emotional feeling back to that person. Avoid repeating back word for word what the person said. Parroting can sound patronizing and sometimes condescending. The basic formula for constructing empathic statements is "So you..." This basic formula keeps the focus on the other person and away from you. We naturally tend to say something to the effect, "I understand how you feel." The other person automatically thinks, "No, you don't know how I feel because you are not me." The basic formula ensures that the focus of the conversation remains on the person you are talking to.
Jenn: I've been really busy this week.
Tom: So you didn't have much free time in the last few days.
Once the basic formula for empathic statements has been mastered, more sophisticated empathic statements can be constructed by dropping "So you..."
Tom: I've been really busy this week.
Jenn: Free time has been at a premium in the last several days.
The effort to listen carefully can help avoid conflict, because misunderstandings are the source of many of the conflicts we have with our loved ones. Experts on communication and conflict suggest that careful listening involves the effort to understand the meaning of what our counterparts are saying to us. They refer to this as the intentionalist paradigm, because it focuses on uncovering intentions of the other person. Note, however, that our focus is to be on understanding our loved ones’ intentions and not on explaining or defending our own viewpoints.
This simple but effective technique requires effort. However, the effort required to effectively communicate with others is far less effort than is required to resolve a conflict. There will be plenty of opportunities to run on auto-pilot and recharge your batteries, just not during those times when communicating with those you love.
Be swift to hear and slow to speak.
This guest blog was written by Randy Marcoz. He recently earned his Master’s degree in forensic psychology and is currently employed by Intelligent Communication, a service of GeoSource Capital Solutions. His Intelligent Communication blog can be found at www.intelligentcommunicationskills.com.