Whether we’re talking about marital communication or political communication, people want to be heard and understood. Consequently, it is important that we learn to listen, hear each other, and share understanding, even if we disagree, especially when we disagree. And yet, so many get frustrated, irritated, and angry when they encounter disagreement.
Here is a little exercise I do with clients to help them get used to disagreement, and greatly improve their ability to listen and understand.
Who are you?
Take 30 seconds and talk out loud (or write on a paper) and answer this seemingly simple question: “Who are you? If you get stuck, just read the information off your driver’s license.”
Next, answer this question: “How do you know you’re not me?” It sounds like the theme of a 1960 Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode (I created you by describing you to my dictation machine).
When we do this exercise, answers to the second question include: because I have my memories that are not yours; my family, my friends, my culture, my religion, and I have my own thoughts and feelings that are not yours.
Why do we expect to agree?
Next, our third question: If you are not me, and all these factors make us different, would you expect us to agree or disagree with each other? Perhaps the more similar we are, the more we will agree, and vice versa. But when you and I witness the same event – perhaps an interaction between us – because of our differences, what you pay attention to might be different from what I pay attention to; how you interpret what you see might be different from how I interpreted what I see; and over time, what you remember of the event is likely to be different from what I remember.
That is, because you are not me and I am not you, it is very likely that you and I will disagree about the event. If you can accept that and expect it, you can more easily choose not to become angry or triggered when disagreements occur.
Your understanding of reality — the story you tell of what happened and what it means — is your “narrative”. My understanding is my ”narrative”. Our narratives might be similar. Or they might be very different. It does not mean one of us is right and the other wrong; it means our capacity as humans to make sense of the world is impacted by all the factors that make you you and not me.
Do I react or respond?
Now suppose you angrily accuse me of offending you. And suppose I believe I didn’t do anything offensive. What happens? Do I react? Or do I respond? To react is to express feelings. To respond is to think how to be “strategically effective” to achieve a desired goal.
- React: The “Inner Child” part of me is angry and wants to strike back: “you’re being too sensitive” or “you do it too!”; or invalidate your narrative: “that’s not what happened”; or walk away.
- Respond: The “Adult/Parent” part of me engages in self-talk and decides it best that I self-sooth so I can listen and engage you in a discussion about what happened so we both feel understood and resolve the situation.
How do I respond instead of react? Slow down, breathe slowly, use self-talk to recognize that angry feelings are electrical impulses across my brain and will pass.
And here is a powerful tool. I can recognize that your accusation is part of your narrative, not mine, and your anger is inside your boundary, not mine. Inside my boundary, I can choose not to get angry, I can trust my own judgment and my narrative, and I can assure myself that I am OK even though you won’t validate my narrative. Now I can listen; I don’t need to argue to change what you think. I can co-exist with you even when our narratives differ.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is an implicit, shared understanding between people about physical and emotional space that is based on mutual recognition that each person is a separate entity, and has authority over his/her own personal physical space, body, thoughts, feelings, and activities. It includes personal responsibility for what occurs inside one’s boundary; for example, if I am angry, it’s because I choose to be angry (see Choosing to Be Stubbornly Happy: No One Makes You Angry).
By recognizing that your angry accusation is part of your narrative, and may not be true, I can choose to see that you are distressed, not hostile, I can encourage you to share, and I can listen. Why would I want to encourage you to talk about your anger? Simple:
- It gives me an opportunity to listen and express understanding, even if I disagree. When you feel heard and understood, you are likely to calm down and allow me to share my narrative.
- By understanding your narrative, I can see where we disagree. I can then calibrate my response. I can listen and understand that you were offended. I can apologize. I can offer to avoid the behavior. And I can ask if you are willing to interpret my behavior as not offensive.
Practice Maintaining Boundaries and Responding
Use a journal to record situations where people expressed opinions different from your own, how you felt about it, and how you reacted and/or responded. Did you recognize that their opinion and passion were part of their narrative? Did you remain calm even if you disagreed? I encourage my clients to use CaseKeepers.com for electronic journaling. It enables me to collaborate more effectively with my clients.
These methods are helpful in intimate relationships. They are also helpful as we approach the November elections to promote civil discourse about important issues facing our country. Democracy requires that we share thoughts (narratives) without fear, best with openness and kindness. This happens only when we respect each other’s narratives.