3 of the Most Common Communication Mistakes
It’s easy for conversations to get derailed: How to get them back on track
Posted Jul 04, 2020
Two seconds into any conversation and Tom and Angelina are likely to be arguing. While the topic varies—money, parenting, vacations—they start going down these rabbit holes about facts: Who said what; when did it happen; was it Tuesday or Wednesday. It usually quickly escalates with each stacking up more evidence, each accusing the other of always making things up, or of never remembering.
Sonya suggests x; Josh doesn’t agree. Sonya says, "Why do you have to get so angry?" Josh says, "I’m not angry, I’m expressing my opinion." "You always do this," says Sonya. "You always think I’m angry," says Josh. "Well, you are," says Sonya… "Well," says Josh, "if you want to see anger, I can show you what anger looks like."
Cate and Matt are both feeling that the house is a mess and are talking about getting the kids involved in doing chores around the house. "Maybe we can come up with a chore list," says Cate, "and have the kids each pick a couple." "No," says Matt, "I hate lists. Let’s just assign them two chores each." "But the list gives them…" "No, we’re in charge…" They are both off and running.
While it’s always easy for conversations to go off course and become emotional—with work colleagues, with strangers—they are especially likely to happen in more intimate relationships. Here are three common conversation derailers:
#1. Arguing over facts
This is Tom and Angelina. They are getting stuck arguing over the facts of the past—who said what, when, who’s version is right. As they get more emotional they each begin to stack up more evidence to make their case—pulling out texts, bringing in supporting witnesses ("My mother said you told her…"). They each are hyper-focused on getting the facts right. But the facts have nothing really to do with solving a problem in the present. They are getting stuck in the details of the past, the weeds.
#2. Arguing over whose reality is right
While Tom and Angelina get stuck focusing on the backstory and history, Sonya and Josh are arguing about differing perceptions in the present. Sonya hears anger, Josh denies, the conversation gets derailed arguing over whose view of reality is the reality.
#3. Confusing means and ends
This is Cate and Matt. By getting stuck on the role of the kids and mechanics of a chore list—the means—they're losing sight of their ultimate goal, namely, cleaning up the house—the end.
Getting back on track
Obviously, the key here is doing none of the above. Here are some tips:
Set a clear, concrete goal for the conversation
This is about knowing where you want to go before you start driving the conversational car. You know to do this on your job—have an agenda before you meet with your supervisor—but it's just as important in intimate relationships: What is "it" that you and your partner need to resolve, what is that one thing that you want her to most understand? Figure it out ahead of time so you know where and what you’re wanting to get to.
Stay on the road
This is about realizing when you are getting stuck in the weeds of the past, when you are arguing about whose reality is right, when you are confusing means and ends. As soon as you realize this—that you are getting emotional and stacking up evidence, that you are both talking in circles—redirect the conversation: Hold on, we’re getting sidetracked, this is not about my mother, whether or not we have a chore list. Can we get back and talk about ___ instead?
Expect some push-back
The first few times you try to get back on track, expect the other guy to push back—wanting to stack up more evidence, get back into the weeds because you have broken the old pattern, which in turn creates anxiety. Here's where you need to take a deep breath and resist the temptation to get back in the fray. Hear him out, but then redirect: You’re right, I may remember it differently, or maybe you're not angry, but can we move forward?
Keep moving forward
The chore list is going nowhere. Okay, you say, let’s back up. What do we need to do to clean up the house better? Are we both on the same page about getting the kids involved? Can we come up with a plan for x?
And if this is all too difficult to do in the heat of the moment because you are both upset, it's time for first aid—stepping back, doing the best you can to take responsibility for your emotions, reining them in, calling for a time-out. This is not about giving in, but lowering the temperature in the room so you can get back on track.
The challenge here is about stepping up and being the rational one in a sea of confusion and emotion. It's about not getting derailed by keeping your eyes on the goal.