As part of Live Happy’s 90 Days to a Happier You challenge, we’ve gathered experts from around the country to help us—and you!—change habits and live better in 2016. In the second part of her blog series, communication expert Michele Gravelle explains how to prevent blame from mucking up difficult conversations.
If you’ve been following along with Live Happy contributing editor Susan Kane and me on the 90 Days challenge, perhaps you’ve set your own goal for better communication. You’ve started journaling and paying attention to what you are thinking, feeling and not saying in your conversations. You are inquiring and empathizing—and yet you find yourself still getting triggered or inadvertently triggering the other person.
Now I want to talk about what you can do to get back on track and navigate through the tough spots.
A common challenge
One of the most common pitfalls that keeps us stuck in our old behaviors is blame. In almost all difficult conversations, there is an undercurrent of, “I’m right, you’re wrong—and if you would just stop doing what you’re doing, then I would stop being upset with you and we wouldn’t be having this hard time.” In essence, we are saying that the current challenge is the other person’s fault.
We need to take a very honest look at our thoughts and behaviors to uncover our not-so-hidden message of blame, because even though we may believe we aren’t openly blaming the other person, if we are thinking it or feeling it, then I guarantee that message is leaking into the conversation, and that’s what the other person is reacting to.
As an example, let’s look at Susan’s situation with her daughter Coco. Susan sometimes feels that her daughter speaks to her disrespectfully, and this has been an ongoing challenge. I think all of us who have lived through those teenage years with our kids can relate. It’s easy to think, “I’m the parent, they are the child, they need to treat and talk to me with respect. If they would stop being so disrespectful, then I would stop being so angry with them.” In theory, that makes sense. However, the underlying message that the teenager hears is, “This is your fault,” which, of course, acts as a trigger and causes the child to be even more volatile and defensive.
How to turn it around
When we make our kids (or anyone else) responsible for our feelings, we are then forever waiting for them to change in order for us to experience peace of mind or happiness. A better approach is to take responsibility for your own state of mind and feelings. Not only will this allow you to feel better, it also takes the blame out of your message to your child and allows you to model the exact behavior you would like them to adopt.
Here’s a sample of what a non-blaming conversation might sound like:
Child speaking to parent: “I hate you! Why do you always stick your nose in everything I do? Just leave me alone.”
Parent: (Instead of saying “Don’t talk to me that way”) “Sounds like you have something on your mind?”
Child: “No, I just want you to let me have my own space.”
Parent: “What is it I’m saying or doing that is most frustrating for you?”
Parent: “Ok, if you were going to coach me to be a better parent, what is one thing that you would like me to do differently in the future when I’m curious about how your day was?”
Child: “Let me decide when and what to tell you, instead of bombarding me with questions the minute I come home from school.”
Parent: “I’ll work on that and if I forget and start asking you too many questions, I would like you to say, ‘Mom, remember, we agreed that you wouldn’t ask so many questions.’”
This conversation may seem a little unrealistic for those of you who are in the middle of raising teenagers. Your inner voice may be saying “Yeah, right, my son/daughter would never talk like that.” However far-out it might sound, there are some key lessons to learn here:
- Notice that in each turn of the conversation, the parent responded to the child with inquiry, not blame.
- The parent asked for specific coaching. Your kids have all kinds of useful advice to give you. When you ask for their input, it raises their self-esteem and demonstrates that you value and respect their ideas.
- The parent is modeling that they want to learn and in the process they are offering their child choices in the conversation.
These conversational moves work with everyone—not just between parents and kids.
Next time you find yourself stuck in a conversation and feel that you’ve gotten off track, stop and ask yourself how you might covertly be blaming the other person. Or, simply ask the other person, “What do you see me doing in this conversation that’s not helpful?” Asking your conversation partner to give you feedback in the moment is a powerful move to make and if done sincerely can yield valuable information and rebuild trust.
Want to hear more about communicating with loved ones from Michele? Listen to her discussing positive communication on our podcast here.
Michele Gravelle is an experienced executive coach, communications expert and consultant with The Triad Consulting Group. She also facilitates executive education programs at the Harvard Negotiation Institute and Duke Corporate Education, and is a contributing author to the book Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Path to Leadership.