Last week, we talked about our human tendency to get stuck in patterns of doing the same old things over and over again even when they obviously don’t work, such as reenacting the same infuriating argument with our partner (for the hundredth time), or nagging our kids incessantly, even when it’s obvious that they've long since tuned us out.
This week, I wanted to discuss how, exactly, we might be more successful in communicating what we want and need, and effecting positive changes in our important relationships. The great classic book, The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, outlines the do's and don’ts of addressing problems with other people. Many of the following tips will be familiar to you, but I've found this list to be extremely helpful in getting me back on track when my communications have gone astray. I hope you find it helpful too.
1. Do speak up when an issue is important to you. Sometimes simply letting something go is an act of maturity, but you “de-self” yourself when you fail to take a stand on issues that really matter to you.
2. Don’t strike when the iron is hot. Fighting is not always a bad thing, but when communication has become a destructive pattern, it becomes important not to initiate a conversation when you’re feeling angry or upset.
3. Do take time to think about the problem and to clarify your position. Before you speak out, ask yourself questions such as, “what is it about this situation that upsets me?” “what is the underlying issue here? “what exactly do I want to change?’ “what are my limits and boundaries regarding this issue?”
4. Don’t use “below the belt” tactics. These include: put downs, condescension, sarcasm, blaming, guilt-tripping, diagnosing or analyzing the other person, moralizing, interrogating, ridiculing, ambushing, manipulating, threatening, or other war tactics.
5. Do speak in “I” statements: I think, I feel, I want, I’m afraid, I have an issue, etc., but avoid disguised, pseudo “I” statements such as, “I feel like you're being a jerk right now!”
6. Don’t make vague requests. Be specific so that the other person doesn't have to read your mind to know what you want or need.
7. Do try to appreciate that people are different. Different ways of thinking and behaving don’t necessarily mean that one person is right (you) and the other person is wrong (him).
8. Don’t participate in intellectual arguments that go nowhere. Trying to convince others of your rightness or their wrongness is a waste of time. Instead try saying something like, “It might sound crazy to you, but this is how I feel.”
9. Do recognize that every person is responsible for his or her own behavior. If you’re blaming your friend’s new boyfriend because you never see your friend anymore, it’s time to have a conversation with your friend.
10. Don’t tell another person what she thinks or feels, or what she should think or feel. You can only know what you think and feel, and sometimes that’s not even possible.
11. Do try to avoid speaking through a third party. If you’re angry about someone’s behavior, own it by saying “I’m upset about...,” instead of, “you hurt my daughter’s feelings when you...”
12. Don’t expect change to come from “hit and run” confrontations. Change occurs over time, and we have to be willing to hang in there and work with people if we want to see positive changes in an important relationship.