Over the years I have thought a lot about advice to give people going through tough family situations.
This could be for discussions between separating couples; for talks between couples entering into cohabitation or pre-marital agreements where they are trying to find the right words about the securities they need to build their lives together; or it could be for conversations between parents and children who are trying to find common ground, at a time when they are feeling hurt. It could also be for difficult discussions between siblings, business partners, or others who are in an important relationship.
My advice is this:
- TAKE THREE STEPS BACK
I actually mean this literally.
Physical space is often very helpful to get a clearer lens on an emotionally charged situation. Having some space helps to fashion more reasonable discussion and safety, where actions could occur which would generally not happen in considered conversations. It is less likely that someone will get physically hurt given more space in these types of discussions. Your own or others' tempers can flash quickly without advance thought. Pay attention to the emotional temperature in the room.
Figuratively, if you can take a bird's eye view of the situation it is much easier to keep things in perspective. Is the momentary satisfaction of lashing out at the other person really worth the long term damage you could be doing to the relationship? Is what you are arguing about really that important? Maybe it is, but you will feel like you are on far more solid footing if you take the time to analyze it this way. Why would you want to make decisions reactively? What if you could find a way to communicate better?
- TAKE TWO DEEP BREATHS
It is not just the pause that is helpful, it is the intake of oxygen to help you think clearer. I think one deep breath is not enough. "When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax." 1
The pause itself is also incredibly important . If you can stop the impulse to immediately act upon what is uppermost in your emotionally overwrought mind, you will be more able to consider whether it is helpful or not, and whether there is a different way to communicate that will more likely allow the other person to hear your incredibly important message.
- ASK ONE CURIOUS QUESTION
A curious question is a question where you are really trying to find out what is going on for the other person. It does not carry a message or edge in it. Leave judgment and blame aside. Ask the question like you really want to know the answer, just as a very young child who is just learning about the world would ask. Don't colour the question with your own opinion. Try to take the urgency out of your voice tone. Ask in a gentle, but not pleading tone. Back to previous advice: breathe deeply and slow everything down. You are more likely to get a genuine response to a curious question, and this can lead to more curious questions. My experience is that people following this advice will often get the answers they need to know, and that the communication barriers will diminish allowing them to talk about the real issues.
This "3, 2 1" method I have coined has helped many people. It has been a very useful technique in Collaborative Law meetings, and Mediations, but it can also be beneficial in any discussion that is fraught with fear, anxiety or anger. For me in all my relationships, not just with and for my clients, but including when I was on Management, and in my personal relationships, the simplicity kept me on track to hold me to what was really important. I invite you to try it out in your own relationships to see if it is effective for you.
- Move Three Steps Back (So you have room to think more rationally);
- Take Two Deep Breaths (Get centred);
- then, start the hard work of Asking a curious non-defensive question.
Repeat as necessary.
This usually means going through the process multiple times, but in my experience, it has been very worthwhile.
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