I’m not taking on a question this month. There is already one staring me in the face as I meet and work with clients since the election last month. How do we get past the rancor and disappearance of civil discourse that still seems to be hanging on? The after effects are showing up in many business conversations I’m having, and I think it boils down to this: How do we get past making them wrong and us right? It’s an important question.
Here’s what I’ve learned about these kinds of stressful conversations. When we’re in the middle of one, it’s difficult for the best version of us to show up. Typically, we’ll find ourselves blaming the other person for not listening, or not understanding our point of view, or not caring. According to us. When we make another person wrong for any of those reasons, it’s hard for them to show up any other way. We can’t see past our judgment of them.
When that happens we have created a Reactive Cycle.
Here’s how it works. When we experience a tense conversation with another person and think they are way off base, we get irritated because they said something we disagreed with. We know from brain research that within a quarter of second, we react. And it’s emotional. We’re right. They’re wrong.
Our emotional reaction is to either fight back or close down, closing them out from us. We take steps to defend our point of view, or offend them with our sense of superiority. This emotional reaction of ours is actually a reactive habit we have practiced for years.
Not surprisingly, the other person can feel this negative reaction from us, even if we don’t open our mouth. They can pick up on our uncomfortable feelings through subtle non-verbals we’re not even conscious of. They know something is off and we are blaming them.
This other person, in turn, has their own emotional reaction to us and judges us, taking their own protective steps to defend against us, or find a way to offend us. That’s where name calling shows up.
To no surprise, this intensifies the emotional reaction in us, validating our earlier perception of them as being yet again mean or uncaring or rude or whatever we thought they were.
You can see where this is going. Our judgment of the other person actually becomes more robust and “certain” as this Reactive Cycle continues. And the other person’s judgment of us escalates as well, plummeting both of us into a downward cycle of emotional reactions that disconnects and breeds distrust. Who wants to live with that?
Here’s the amazing piece of this cycle: We created it. It was our emotional reaction that started it and yet we blame the other person. If they just agreed with us, this wouldn’t be happening. Sound familiar?
The good news is that since we’re the one that started it, we are also the one who can end it. Breaking the Reactive Cycle starts with curiosity. Without that, the other person never gets to show up any other way for us.
Start by being curious with yourself. What is the issue you are so upset about? Do you know the reasons the other person disagrees with you? Have you ever asked and stopped to listen? Remember, getting curious doesn’t mean you agree. It means you are willing to listen so you can understand.
Once you are clear on the issue, ask a question about that to the other person. When you hear their response, stop yourself from saying, “Yes, but…” Instead, ask, “What else?” or “Tell me more.” Keep asking that until you understand the issue from their point of view.
Isn’t that what you really want from the other person, too? To be listened to and understood? Here’s a funny thing about being able to identify what we really want. Giving another the very things we want—being listened to and understood—often leads to getting that from another.
Are you willing to let go of being right so you can find a way through this?
It’s the conversations people don’t have but are starving for that cause emotional reactions and disconnections. A curious conversation enables people to have those conversations as a civil discourse. That is what opens up hope. One of my favorite writers, Peggy Noonan, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month right after the election, “Is it possible there are deeper reserves of good intent lurking in there than we know?” That’s what we need to find out with each other.
Do you want to lead a conversation like that, or are you willing to let old emotional and reactive habits lead you?
Need motivation? Consider the following poem the next time you find yourself reacting:
A woman was waiting at an airport one night
With several long hours before her flight.
She hunted for a book in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.
She was engrossed in her book but happened to see,
The man beside her as bold as could be.
He grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between
Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.
She munched cookies and watched the clock,
As the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking if I wasn’t so nice I’d blacken his eye.
With each cookie she took, he took one too.
When only one was left she wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half as he ate the other.
She snatched it from him and thought,”Oh Brother.”
This guy has some nerve and he is also so rude,
Why he didn’t even show any gratitude.
She had never known when she had been so galled,
And she sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate
Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.
She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,
then sought her book which was almost complete.
As she reached in her bag, she gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies in front of her eyes.
If mine are here, she moaned with despair,
Then the others were his and he tried to share.
Too late to apologize she realized with grief
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.