Not Getting Your Concerns Heard? Try These 5 Tools
Instead of getting mad, remind yourself of these ear-opener techniques.
Posted Sep 10, 2019
I recently received an email from a reader asking how to get her concern heard by her therapist.
How can I get our therapist to address my husband's demeaning ways? I know I don't come out with it very directly, but when I make complaints about his ignoring my feelings, I would like the issue to be discussed.
Then the same day, I received a second similar question, again about how to get heard.
My wife does some things that are totally unacceptable to me, like saying mean things about me to others when we are in social situations, but when I complain to her, she ignores me or gets defensive. I'm very depressed about not being able to get her to change.
Two similar questions in a row signal to me that many folks out there must share this concern, so I decided that I'd better write a post on the topic.
Therefore, here is a short list of tools for increasing your odds of getting your concerns heard. Each tool is expressed as a short mantra to make it easy to remember.
Make a "good news, bad news, good news" sandwich.
Positive comments invite both of you to relax. When people begin by offering a nugget of positivity—e.g., of appreciation, affection, or gratitude—the positive energy they emanate puts the other at ease. The more relaxed that listeners are, the more that their ears open to hearing others' concerns.
Note: Transition between the first two parts of the sandwich with and, not with but: Here's the good news, and at the same time, the bad news, and also more good news. More on this tip coming up.
Janice (to her couples therapist):
Good news: I appreciate how you are helping us to understand each other better.
Bad news: And at the same time, I lose faith in the therapy when my husband speaks to me in a demeaning voice and you don’t call him out on it.
Good news: I’m hopeful that with your help, he may be able to hear how much it bothers me when he talks to me that way.
Good news: I was very glad you came with me to watch our son's soccer game yesterday. It meant so much to him and was fun for me to share watching it with you.
Bad news: At the same time, I felt humiliated when you told our friends Sandra and Tom that I'm not such a good cook.
Good news: In the future, if you would you be willing to say only positive things, or nothing at all, about me to others, I would feel much safer going places with you. I would be very appreciative.
Use a when-you/I felt combo: "When you____, I felt____."
"When you" specifies the specific incident that was problematic for you.
"I felt (or I feel)" then engages compassion instead of defensiveness.
“In our last therapy session, when you let my husband speak in a disparaging tone of voice to me, I felt unprotected. I felt the same way I used to feel growing up when my older brothers would pick on me and my parents ignored it.”
"At Jimmy's soccer game the other day, when you told Sandra that I'm a terrible cook, I felt humiliated.”
An important hint: Stay clear of completing I felt ___ with an anger word, e.g., annoyed, pissed, mad, angry, etc. Anger invites defensiveness. Use instead words that express vulnerability, words like sad, hurt or upset. These feeling words can still be true to what you felt, yet invite compassionate rather than defensive responses.
Make requests, not complaints.
A request can be phrased to sound quite positive. Requests ask for help, and most people want to be helpful. Complaints, by contrast, send forth negative energy. Because they sound threatening, they invite defensiveness and counterattacks.
Note that a request implies that you are asking a question. Good questions usually begin with what or how.
In the following examples, can you hear the difference in potential effectiveness? Positivity generally pays off in responsivity.
Janice, to the therapist:
Complaint: “You don’t protect me when my husband speaks in a demeaning tone of voice to me.”
Request: “It would help me a lot if you could say something to my husband when he talks to me in a demeaning way. How would you feel about calling attention to his tone of voice when he sounds contemptuous or sarcastic?”
Complaint: "You criticized me in front of our friends. That was not at all nice and really hurt my feelings."
Request: "I'm generally open to feedback from you. At the same time, I'm very sensitive to being criticized in front of others. How would you feel about the two of us adopting a no-negative-comments-about-each-other-to-friends rule? I would like that a lot. What're your thoughts on it?"
Hint: Notice how nicely Peter followed the basic rule of cooperative communication: Talk about yourself using I-messages or ask about the other. No complaining or criticizing with you-messages.
Agree, then add, i.e.: "Yes, _____, and at the same time _____."
When you say, "I have a concern I'd like to explain to you," and your loved one ignores what you say, disagrees, or responds dismissively—"Oh, you always have complaints,"—what can you do?
Use the mantra "Agree, then add."
Agree: To begin by agreeing, you will need to listen carefully with your good ear, the ear that can listen to find something that you can agree with.
Express this agreement then, beginning with the word "yes," followed by specifics of what does make sense to you in what was said.
The more you expand on what you agree with or what makes sense to you in what you heard, the more relaxed and open the other will become when you then add your perspective.
Afterwards, after you are sure that your partner feels fully heard, that's the time to add your perspective.
Warning: Beware of undoing your good work with but. Starting with but in front of either half of an Agree and Add sequence will undo the agreement that you are working so diligently to establish.
But, like a giant eraser, deletes what was said before. But signifies subtraction. To clarify that you are going to add your perspective, keeping what was said prior also on the table so that what both of you say matters, expand and to and at the same time.
"Yes, I agree that my husband tends to get prickly when anyone tries to interrupt him when he is talking or to give him negative feedback about what he has said or done. And at the same time, without your helping him to hear the scorn in his voice when he talks to me, this therapy is unlikely to change anything."
"Yes, I agree that I have had lots of complaints in the past. I agree that my complaining has been off-putting for you and ineffective for me as well. And at the same time, I do want to explain my concern to you about bad-mouthing each other in front of other people. Saying negative things about each other reflects badly on both of us. It makes you look mean and unlikable, and at the same time leaves me feeling distressed."
Offer a full-house combo
Combine all the techniques to maximize your odds of success:
- Start and end with positivity.
- Explain your concern with a "when-you _____, I feel _____."
- Express only requests; skip the complaints.
- If others do not seem to be hearing your concerns, verbalize your understanding of their concerns before re-stating yours.
A word of warning about how to learn these skills.
These tools for helping others to hear your concerns can prove useful in relationships of all types, at home and at work. Still, consolidating new verbal habits can take serious study and practice. Learning takes more than understanding. It takes building new habits. Alas, making the new skills automatic can be as challenging as learning to speak a new language.
So read this article multiple times. Practice aloud lots. Repetitions matter. Maybe also check out the learning options I mention at the top of the post.
Changes don't happen on their own. Learning new skills for how to communicate in a relationship takes practice, study, and more practice—and the payoffs can be well worth the time and effort. Go for it!