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Three Steps to Avoid a Conflict

November 1, 2020

Mature listening involves three things when you are in disagreement with someone about anything.

I’ve been studying listening most of my adult life, and I still don’t have it nailed.

I’m writing this post to myself, but I hope you’ll relate.

Since I don’t have all that much time left — at least not as much as I’d like — I’ve become increasingly assertive in exploring resources to boost my progress in becoming a better listener.

I can’t count the number of times I have shot my mouth off (or snorted) in complete disbelief at someone’s perspective. This year has made it impossible for me to sidestep the reality that I have miles to go to call myself a good listener.

It’s easier with my clients because, in session, I am deeply interested in them. It’s not about me. I want to understand and support them in moving forward in whatever is in their best interest, whether that involves something I agree with or not. So, I have developed more mature listening habits in that environment than in my personal life.

We all know people who believe that they are free to say the first thing that comes into their mind. It’s not attractive in them, so why I would resort to that behavior with people I care about, is beyond me. Clearly, autopilot — doing the things that one habitually does, without any real conscious involvement — is often not my best friend.

This year, the year of Covid-19, combined with a presidential election that has pushed many of us close to the edge, has been particularly challenging for me.

So when a friend shot me an email with a link to a tool that allowed me to practice responding more effectively to disagreements, I decided to do the exercises and write about my reactions.

The Open Mind Platform, An Interactive Guide to Navigating Difficult Conversations, isn’t lofty or complicated. It takes you through a few simple steps that allow you to practice how you might handle things differently if you follow three guidelines.

Here’s my perspective on the three rules for having a decent conversation with someone with whom you profoundly disagree:

PRESS PAUSE

You’ve probably heard the Victor Frankl quote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

Most of the time, I’m comfortable managing myself and my responses thoughtfully and purposefully. Most of the time I’m capable of pressing pause.

But watching myself this year when I strongly disagree with someone — especially someone who is important to me — I am appalled by how often I abdicate responsibility for managing myself and let my monkey mind run the show.

My body tenses, I bizarrely forget everything I’ve learned about effective communication, and default to autopilot. Autopilot gives me old programmed habitual behaviors that get me nowhere. I make a face, or I snort or roll my eyes dramatically while chomping at the bit to say my piece.

Buddhist teacher Trungram Gyalwa Rinpoche, in the article “The Power of the Third Moment,” in Daily Dharma magazine says, “By widening the gap between action and reaction, you can gain some distance from your automatic responses and also gain an opportunity to know your emotions. You can stop being ruled by these emotions and instead begin to rule your experience of life.”

That’s what I want. I want to rule my experience of life.

Think about it. If you paused the moment you noticed yourself tensing up at the beginning of a loaded conversation and asked yourself, “Will the next thing that comes out of my mouth get me closer to what I want or further away?” How might that pause change the direction of the entire conversation?

Granted, you need to be clear about your intention. If your goal is to prove someone wrong and yourself right, you’re probably not interested in practicing new behaviors. But if, like me, you want to increase understanding, both yours and the person with whom you’re disagreeing, pressing pause before you speak may be the beginning of a whole new relationship with the world.

ASK QUESTIONS

When I got to this guideline I reviewed a conversation I had the other night with a friend. Guess what it was about, a week before the election.

It took about thirty seconds for me to devolve into repeating the same position I’ve held on to for months. “How could anyone behave the way “they” are behaving?”

The moment I’m triggered, i.e., I hear or read something I don’t like or that I disagree with, my body tenses, and I’m either on the offense ready for a fight or on the defense ready to protect or reinforce my position.

Even after I watched my friend’s eyes glaze over, I kept talking. Who does that? Pays absolutely no attention to their audience and talks to hear themselves talk?! I suppose on some primal level, I was trying to soothe myself, allay the fears that I won’t get the election outcome I want.

But the truth is, when I’m spouting off from automatic pilot, I’m exacerbating my fears, not soothing them.

What I learned from this step is that asking a simple question, rather than blurting the first thing that comes into my mind, can change the entire direction of a conversation’s.

When I pause and say, “Help me understand how you arrived at your position,” our interaction can evolve. Instead of a one-sided monologue, it can transform into a conversation that has the possibility of increasing our understanding and expanding our thinking.

And no surprise, when I ask a question and express interest in you, you’re much more likely to be willing to hear my perspective.

SPEAK WITH HUMILITY

Years ago, I had the benefit of a friend who dared to say, “Robyn, just because you believe that it doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s your idea or your opinion.”

That’s when I started prefacing my ideas with “I think…”, or “I wonder if…”, or from my perspective…”

When I’m in my right mind, I recognize that my perspective on the world will always be limited by the reality that there is more to know about everything than what I can see.

An example is when I’m working with an individual client. His or her perspective is a view through their filter. I have to remember that their partner may be seeing the same situation through a very different lens. That awareness allows me to help the client possibly see another side to something that initially looked black and white.

My personal experience is that when I’m triggered, and I forget to speak with humility, that tends to be when people’s eyes glaze over.

If we can get better at pressing pause, asking questions, and speaking with humility, disagreements don’t have to automatically turn into conflicts. They can, instead, stimulate growth and information expansion for everyone involved in the conversation.

I don’t want to wait for others to take the lead. That’s on me.

Much love,

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