Summer vacations are great–a time to get away, kick back, sleep in, cook less, have adventures, read novels, see summer blockbusters, and in the case of our loving family of four…fight. Tell me we’re not alone. It’s the dark side of summer. Well, not that dark. Arguments typically consist of two categories. Category one: What to eat. Category two: What to do. There are of course, the variations on the theme: What to do after you eat, what to eat after you do and so on. Sound familiar?
But lest you think that frivolous questions: ocean side or bay side; Italian or noodle bar; mini-golf or movies are why I have written this post, think again. (Naturally, I’m saving those for my next blog post). No, it’s a different category of arguments that held us in its clutches all week. These are the arguments, nefarious and unavoidable, fought over nothing other than…tone.
You know tone. It’s so easy to slip on, trip over, and hijack a moment in no time flat. It’s what can turn a simple statement like: “Can you please help clean up the beach toys?” into a heart-warming Walton family project (if John Boy and his family ever went to the beach, which I’m quite sure they never did) filled with that greater-goodness and smiles and laughter; or, into fighting words, stomping of feet and throwing of buckets, the hidden accusation: You never do anything to help out, you spoiled person, perhaps not so well hidden.
I’m exaggerating of course; we had a wonderful vacation. And the stomping of feet and throwing of buckets–that was actually another family with younger kids two beach blankets over, but still. What we tended to throw, as a family with a teenager and college student, were accusations of disrespect and ungratefulness (parents’ complaint) and unfairness and annoyance (kids’ complaint), and our responses to the imagined infractions didn’t make the situation better–they always made it worse. Counter-accusations were lobbed, the validity of the accusations and counter-accusations debated. Getting further and further away from what started the misunderstanding in the first place. Fun! Hyper-verbal, hyper-analytical and apparently hyper-sensitive to our hotspots, we couldn’t help ourselves. But the idealist in me knew that we could do better. And, eventually, we did.
Did we really mean to be snarky, grumpy, disrespectful, over-reactive, condescending, ungrateful, demanding, bossy, mouthy, or to jump to conclusions?
Well, yes, sometimes, I suppose, we did.
But, most of the time, no. We watched our hastily formed words head out of our mouths like bowling balls careening out into lanes unintended–bam, bam, bam–and wished we could have taken back the throw. And that is exactly what we learned to do.
OK, maybe bowling is not the most elegant metaphor–here’s a better one. Among seven year olds playing wiffle-ball in the back yard it’s called a “do-over.” Among more sophisticated and civilized adults on the golf course it’s called a mulligan. Essentially it means the chance to take back and try again without penalty or judgment something that was clearly an error, with the understanding (in that rounding up way) that the errant swing (or in our case obnoxious comment) is not really our best shot and we could do better if we tried again.
Rather than makes things worse by wasting time finding the misunderstandings under the rubble of the hour long recapitulation, rehashings and analysis, when all the good parking spaces of the beach were taken, we made things better–quickly–by offering the opportunity to, respectfully, rewind and try that one again. By softening our tone and delivery with our second try, we were jumping in the waves before we knew it.
Let’s give it a visual:
Insensitive words + Over-reaction = Mess!
Insensitive words + Opportunity to Do-over (preferably immediately)= No Mess! Better Times, instantly!
Here are the phrases–the “front-end” interventions–that worked in seconds to invite one another to try again; once again, with (less) feeling.
Can you rephrase that, please? This is great when a child (or parent, but let’s face it, usually it’s a child) says something adrenaline-surging like: “This wasn’t fun,” or “I’m bored,” mind you, in the aftermath of having done many fun things.
Let’s rewind here. Similar to rephrasing, and a delightful alternative to the knee-jerk freak out: “Are you kidding me?!?!, when a child or parent says something controversial (i.e., thoughtless). Let’s rewind includes in the revision or “second draft” an opportunity to avoid saying something insensitive too, like,“You are so ungrateful!” Instead of over-reacting to insensitivity, with more insensitivity, you can come back at it more rationally.
Is this really what you want to be saying/doing right now? More of the “rounding-up” technique. You know the person is capable of doing or saying better than what they’ve just said, but putting it like that tends to–surprisingly–backfire. This phrase overlooks the badness of what just happened, aside from not being insulting, you’re actually giving the other person power in the situation (who doesn’t like power?), power, in this case, to fix his her own infraction. It’s beautiful.
What would you do if you were me right now? Much more diplomatic (and less insulting) than saying I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole, you are asking the other person to clean up their own mess by giving them authority to do so. It’s a win-win.
What do you think I’m going to say here? Save yourself (and everyone else) the lecture. Rather than correcting, explaining, etc., see if the other person (often, but not always a child) can anticipate your response and say it for you. Rather than having to launch into a rant, you can pleasantly sit back and appreciate that your child, or your spouse actually has been listening to you all these years, knows how you are going to react and what matters to you, and suddenly a “no” moment turns into a yes–yes they are right! They guessed all by themselves what they need to fix and every body is the better off because of it.
Have your family try these phrases out–post them on the fridge, keep them on the kitchen table or in the glove compartment for easy access during long car rides where diplomacy would be helpful (especially after the ipad battery dies).
Any one can use these techniques. The great thing is that over time, because this works so well, you will have each other’s back. Maybe if you over-react to something your child says because you got knocked over by a whoosh of frustration and so didn’t think to say things like “Can you rephrase that?” when your child sees your (over)reaction and realizes that this was an undesired effect, he can catch himself all by himself and say–“I think I better rephrase that,” or, “I am going to rewind on that.”
So, that’s our stash, our story of how our family mastered Diplomacy 101 on our vacation. I’m happy to report that we brought these ideas home along with the seashells and sunburn. Evidence? The other day was our thirteen year old’s birthday party. When I asked her if she wanted us parents to sit at the same dinner table with her friends, her reply: “Um, Mom, well, I’m just not sure you’re going to understand our humor,” I could hear the auto-rewind in her mind. The first version: “Are you kidding me?!?!” never passed her lips.
© Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D. 2014. No part of this material may be reproduced without direct permission from the author.