January 10, 2012

What We Want To Hear

You know those terrible conversations where one person is hurt? And they are desperately trying to explain to the other person that they are hurt in connection with something that other person did?

Those conversations almost never go according to plan, right?

They usually spiral into one person or the other (or both) trying to blame the other and neither person expressing enough empathy or taking appropriate ownership of their role in the situation.

I'm human, and I've messed this stuff up and gotten it just as horrifically wrong as the next person.

However, I've recently counseled a few friends through some conflicts, and it's so much easier to see a way forward when you aren't in the middle. So here's what I could see from the outside:

As a general rule, if someone is hurt in connection with your actions, they usually want a few very simple things:

1. They want you to listen to what they are saying while they are venting and expressing their frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment and hurt.

**This is the hardest step. When someone is hurt they often lash out or resort to passive aggressive miscommunication. If they are direct, they are often too direct, saying things that are hurtful and not necessary or related to their pain. In my experience, the more often someone trusts that they are going to have their needs met by sharing their pain the more pleasant they are in the communication of their needs. If you are committed to helping heal the conflict, you have to be the bigger person here, and just listen. This is hard.

2. When they are done venting, they want you to put yourself in their shoes, and say, "Yes, I can see how if I were you, what I did would suck."

**Okay, maybe this is actually the hardest step. Keeping quiet and really listening when someone is saying difficult things about you (#1) is hard, but then putting aside your pain to address theirs from their point of view is even harder.

3. They want you to say, "I definitely could have done better. In fact, I really should have done better. Perhaps I could have done X. Would that have been preferable?"

**This part is usually not so tough so long as you sincerely committed to #1 and #2. In fact, if you can get here and be creative, you are well on your way to smoothing things over. Ideally, their response will be positive and their feedback will help you understand how to avoid similar conflicts in the future.

4. Finally, they want you to say, "I feel terrible that you are hurt. I want to make you feel better. I think I can try to you feel better by doing X, right now, and doing my best to do Z, in the future. Would that work?"

**It is important to note the acknowledgement of how bad you feel and the desire to make it better. This is a component of emotional conflict resolution that is often ignored. It is not enough to say you are sorry, in most cases. Sorry is an empty word without some showing of vulnerability and an effort and commitment to avoid repeating the pattern that caused the pain.

Note, nothing they want is about you.

They don't want to know why you did what you did. They don't want to know why you think they are overreacting or how you think they are being unfair. They *really* don't want to know anything about what they've done that might be cause for pain on your part.

Is that fair?


In fact, it is likely that in addition to having completely reasonable complaints you'd like to see addressed at the same time as theirs, you will also be hurt simply by listening to them in #1 and possibly by their responses to your efforts in #2-#4.

However, unless the other person is being abusive or disrespectful (in which case you should stand up for yourself and point it out), I promise you, the fastest way to a solution and smoothing over of a conflict is to swallow your hurt and focus solely on theirs. You can raise your pain *after* theirs has been properly addressed.

(P.S. -- why do I feel like this post is going to come back and bite me in the butt?)

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