Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Being Heard: Breaking Through the Impasse

In my last post, Silence: A Relationship Killer, we explored the ruinous consequences that intentional silence has on relationships. Silence is antithetical to healthy communicating. Very often people may resort to silence because they anticipate that what they need to say will fall on deaf ears or, worse still, invite an angry reaction. Anticipating that roadblock, we may choose silence. There is a better way, however. Let’s look at how we can navigate these sensitive communications successfully.

When we initiate a challenging discussion, it’s more than likely that the other party may not truly be listening. Their negative reaction may be triggered by specific words or topics, our tone, or body language, but it is most likely anchored in the memory of past impasses and unresolved conflicts. More often than not, the other person appears to be defending their territory and preparing their rebuttal while we’re still trying to articulate our thoughts, and vice-versa of course. Your sentence may not be complete before the other person’s reaction has begun. The futility of not being heard becomes a primary reason why people may default to silence.

The Preface

When I choose to express something that I believe will be difficult or challenging for the other person to hear, I find that devoting a few sentences, as a preface to the intended communication, can be very helpful. In other words, I set up the discourse to better the chance that I’ll be heard. We need to set the stage so that our words won’t fall on deaf ears. Runners stretch before they run, pitchers warm up before pitching to the hitter, and we study before taking a test. Just as importantly, we need to ease into a challenging exchange rather than simply dive in.

This may be as simple as saying, “I have a problem and I’m wondering if you can help?” or “I’m confused about something. Can you try to help me understand?” When we do this, the other person has been enrolled, so to speak, and we have invited them in rather than abruptly jumping into a provocative topic. This technique moves both individuals into the field of what I call a shared inquiry.

As we’ve discussed in regard to defaulting to silence, the anticipation of rejection or anger serves to justify not going there. This leaves the parties without an opportunity for resolution. Alternatively, if we said, “I’m really struggling with something and I need your advice,” it sets up the possibility for constructive dialogue. The other person might likely say, “Sure what’s the problem?” An appropriate follow up might look like: “Well, I have something to share with you that I really need you to hear, but I’m anticipating that you will just shut me down and tell me that I’m wrong, so I don’t know what to do.” There’s now a far better chance that the other individual might actually be less reactive and more present, not to mention sympathetic to your feelings. What we’re actually doing here is acknowledging our history of failed communication and demonstrating our sensitivity to that, prior to engaging the actual subject matter. Our struggle to communicate is often more important than the actual matter to be discussed. First we pay homage to the challenge at hand and the form of the communication and, then having properly set the table, we can move into the actual discourse.

Getting Beneath the Anger

Should we launch into anger, we can rest assured that the other individual is no longer listening. Anger is a mask for fear, sadness, or pain. Anger comes to the forefront because it is a far more accessible emotion (although not as primary) than the vulnerable feelings that hide beneath the fury. When we preface and share our hurt or concerns in a thoughtful manner, however, we increase the chances of the other individual listening to us. When we express vulnerability, we’re likely heard, whereas our angry proclamations are typically nullified. Acting strong is pointless and defensive, whereas embracing your vulnerability opens the communication.

What we have to say may be compelling and very important to get across, but if our words are lost due to the reactive defensiveness of the other person, attempts at communication become an exercise in sheer futility – we have assured our own invalidation. Argument then ensues, and the relationship suffers. Prefacing opens the door to a shared inquiry – two people seeking to understand and appreciate the other’s feelings — and reroutes us from the anticipated roadblock. Shared inquiries tend not to be overly personalized, and thus reactivity is lessened. Don’t begin your sentence with the word you. If you begin in the first person, the other person may still be listening. Be mindful as you speak to avoid the other’s defensive reaction by sharing how you feel as opposed to making an objective indictment of what they did or didn’t do. Remember feelings aren’t right of wrong, so stay away from making statements of fact, which lead to argument.

New Monologues

To have a true dialogue or a more meaningful exchange requires two new monologues. Unless each party is modifying their interaction, the old, tired replay ensues. You can initiate your part of a dialogue by taking a moment before you begin to speak to better the chances that the other person is listening. Ask yourself how you can best articulate what you wish without turning the conversation adversarial. In so doing, you are likely shifting your own inner monologue – and enable a healthier dialogue. My next article will explain and illuminate the process and nature of genuine dialogue, which enables both mutual validation and opportunities for new learning and breakthroughs.

More from Mel

The Possibility Principle

Podcast 113: Why Do You Need to Be Right?

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This is such an insightful piece of guidance! Thank you, Mel. Shifting the inner monologue is so very critical to healthier dialogue.

Matthew Selznick

Thanks Julie

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