Wrapping up Effective Communication

The forty plus posts on this blog have been based on a course I taught entitled: Effective Communication. The required text for that course was, Looking Out, Looking In (2004) by Adler, Towne & Rolls. There are probably newer versions out there – the book is a keeper and only gets better with each new edition.

Looking Out, Looking In Cover

Fear not! Wrapping up effective communication is not the end of this blog. The Saying What Matters lady plans to ramp up her posts by taking followers into the realm of helping relationships. Skills mastered in the area of effective communication are vital when it comes to being of help to others. Hint, hint – review of past posts is not out of the realm of reason. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink and all of that.)

Before we move on, I’d like you to imagine a world where, from a young age, children are taught and see modeled all around them the basics of effective communication. All the various skills that have been discussed in this blog are part of the school curriculum from kindergarten onwards. Children grow up with as fine an understanding of these skills as they have for any other school subject. Communication literacy – that’s what we’ll call this essential learning. How different would that world be from the one you live in now?

Emma & baby chick

When I taught effective communication at the university level the following comments were common reactions to the course:

  • Why didn’t anyone ever teach me anything like this before?
  • I’ve been in university for four years and this is the first course I’ve taken that had the potential to make a difference in my life.

In some ways, these reactions made me sad. At the same time, communication literacy is better learned late than never. Change is always possible.

In invite you to follow along with the Saying What Matters lady as we move forward into the realm of what it means to be truly of help to others. It’s going to be an exciting and challenging ride, so buckle up!

Sunset highway shot - Bruce Witzel photo

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How to do Win-Win Conflict Resolution

In the last post, we discussed the various ways people handle conflict. Let’s take a closer look at the win-win approach. Because, seriously folks, don’t we all want to be part of such a process?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember a time when you were part of a win-win conflict resolution. This type of process doesn’t happen as often as it could for a number of reasons.

  • People don’t know how to do it.
  • In conflict situations, more often than not, people are busy reacting rather than thinking.
  • The process is dead in the water if both people aren’t committed to making it work.

Sedona, Arizona - Guenette photo

Step one

  • Identify the problem and clarify our unmet needs.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Everything in this step is about preparation. First, we have to admit there is a problem and that we are a part of that problem. Then we have to figure out what need or goal is not getting met. Sometimes there are pesky relational needs submerged just below the surface like the ice burg that sank the Titanic. Teasing apart these various threads can be a challenge.

CBC foyer - Toronto - Bruce Witzel photo

Step two

  • Make a date to discuss the issue.

This is an important step. Time set aside to talk about a specific issue honours the importance of the process and allows the other person adequate time to prepare. Win-win is almost never achieved by springing it on another person like a clown screaming boo at a child’s party. It is wise to be prepared for a degree of hand-wringing as the other person imagines that making a date to discuss something quite obviously means the world is soon to come crashing down. Outright hostility is also common. Here the thought process is more like – I’ll get you before you have a chance to get me or talking about things always ends badly. This process will no doubt be new and people have a difficult time with new. Be reassuring and patient.

Horse & Lion - Getty Villa - Bruce Witzel photo

Step three

When the time for the discussion has arrived and you are sitting across from the other person, it is important to clearly describe the problem in ‘I’ language. If not, all the work in step one will have been wasted.

Use the clear message format. Plug in the results of your own step one thinking. Let’s try for an example of a fairly loaded issue from the bedroom – one that might be worthy of a win-win, conflict resolving discussion.

Describe behaviour: When we’re making love and you insist I wear certain things or get in specific positions or pose in certain ways …

Interpretation: I get the idea that you’re trying to recreate some type of fantasy sex …

Feeling: and I feel like it doesn’t even matter that you’re with me. I could be anyone at all as long as I look and do the right things.

Consequences: It ends up all feeling so scripted to me and I go cold inside and have to fake any response at all.

Intention: I want our sex life to more spontaneous. I want there to be room for me to be me.

Bruce Witzel photo

Step four

Now for the really hard part – we must give the other person time to express a point of view. We must listen. During this stage we might try to get feedback on what the other person heard us saying. When we are confident that we have been heard (remember, this does not necessarily mean agreed with) and we have listened to the other person, it is time to move on.

Step five

Together with the other person we will negotiate a solution to the problem. We generate solution options and choose what we can both agree upon. A good way to do this is with a brainstorm activity. Jot down all the ideas – and I do mean all the ideas – take a good look at the choices and decide which idea has the best chance of success.

Step six

Remember to follow-up on how the solution chosen has worked out. Fine tuning may be required.

Garden Statue - Bruce Witzel photo

Why people won’t consider win-win

It sounds too good to be true.

  • No its not, try it and see.

It’s too elaborate and time-consuming.

  • Practice makes perfect. The more people practice this approach the easier and faster it becomes.

It’s too rationale. There’s no room for emotion.

  • Thinking isn’t negative and in terms of conflict, over reliance on emotional responses can and does lead us astray.

Others won’t get on board with the process. I’d be wasting my time.

  • It is up to you to try and convince them to give the process a chance. Perhaps the other person has not been following along with The Saying What Matters blog through all these great posts on effective communication the way you have. Once again be patient, reassuring and clear. Even getting close to the mark with win-win conflict resolution is so refreshing and satisfying that other people in your life will want to be part of the process.

Peace crane @ Manzanar - sitting on the fence

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Methods of Conflict Resolution

Every conflict is, at its most basic level, a struggle to get one’s goals met. The thing to keep in mind is that all parties involved are bent on the same goal. In today’s post, we’ll look at a few ways we can go about resolving a conflict


One person is determined to have his or her goals met at the cost of the other. Power is a large part of this approach. Might makes right and all of that.


No one wins and no one is satisfied. Usually both people will have been striving to win but due to the way the conflict was carried out both have lost. Even when we think we’ve won through the use of power, when viewed through the long term lenses of relationship, we have often ended up in this position.

Skunk Cabbage - Bruce Witzel photo


Both people get at least part of what they wanted. All and all, this is not a bad way through a conflict situation.


Two people have worked effectively through the conflict situation until the needs of both are satisfied – a truly cooperative approach.

Flower 1 - Bruce Witzel photo

How to Make the Best Choice in a Conflict Situation

Different situations require different responses. Though, upon first blush, a cooperative approach seems ideal, we can’t always put in the effort or take the time to make it work.

Consider deferring to the other

If you are clearly in the wrong – or even suspect you might be wrong – it behooves you, for the sake of self, the other and the relationship, to give in. Come on, now, it isn’t that hard. Suck it up. Eating a bit of crow never killed anyone.

Defer if the issue matters more to the other person than it does to you. There is no use engaging in a heated debate about which movie to see when you don’t care all that much and your partner does.

Defer to allow the other a learning experience. This sounds a tad cold but there are times – especially with children and young people – when it is wise to let the other put his or her own ideas to the test and see how it works out.

Defer if the long-term cost is not worth the short-term gain. Sure, you hate going to your in-laws for Christmas but is winning out on this issue worth the long-term cost to your relationship? Probably not.

Flower 2 - Bruce Witzel photo

Consider compromising

Consider some sort of a compromise when there isn’t enough time for win-win cooperation. If both of you are starving, it probably isn’t the time to work out a cooperative policy for who cooks and when. Compromise for now and get some food on the table.

Sometimes the issue isn’t important enough to either person to justify spending the time on a cooperative win-win outcome. And that’s okay. Not everything is earthshattering.

There will be times when the other is unwilling to invest the time in a win-win conflict resolution. That’s life. It’s an imperfect world. A compromise may be the best that can be achieved.

Iris - Bruce Witzel photo

Consider competing

If the issue really matters to you, it may be appropriate to work for a win-lose type of outcome. There will be times when you are confident that you know how things need to be done. Perhaps the entire group wants to head off in one direction looking for water when you are absolutely convinced that fresh water is in another direction. The real threat of dying of thirst drives you forward. Go ahead – work to get everyone turned around at whatever cost.

There are times when others will take advantage of you if you don’t work to win. The Saying What Matters Lady is not a huge fan of competitive endeavours but there are times when we need to compete. There is no use entering a race if you don’t intend to at least try and win.

Desert flower - Bruce Witzel photo

Consider cooperating

Sometimes the resolution of a conflict situation is so important that it is imperative that both people fully buy into the solution. For example, you sit down with your partner to plan for retirement. Unless both of you feel, at the end of the process, that you are each winning, don’t expect the plan to work.

If the long-term relationship is important to both people, it becomes imperative that decisions meet both people’s needs. How to bring up children, manage money and deal with in-laws are all big decisions that have a wide-ranging impact on relationships. Solving conflicts around such issues require cooperation.

Whenever another person is willing to put in the time to reach a cooperative, win-win solution, it would be wise to meet that person half-way with the same intention.

Kohan Reflection Garden 2 - Bruce Witzel photo

Okay, there you have it. A few approaches to consider. Get curious. Think about your experiences with working to solve conflict using any of these approaches. What works? What doesn’t? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the outcome to be different is often cited as a definition of bad relationship practice. The Saying What Matters lady urges you to go forth and cooperate whenever you can.

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Assertion and the Clear Message Format

In our last post on conflict – oh my, that word does invoke a shiver – we looked at different ways people approach conflict. In today’s post, we’ll delve deeper into the assertive approach and how we can deliver an assertive message. But first, let’s get clear on how assertion differs from aggression by looking at a dictionary meaning of each.

Aggression: hostile or violent behaviour or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront.

DefiantBaldEagle - Charles Brandt photo

Assertion: a confident and forceful statement of fact or belief.

Clearly, these two approaches differ by a wide margin. Let’s keep that in mind as we proceed to look at the various dimensions of sending an assertive message to another person.


Try to describe the behaviour using only information that comes through the senses. We’re looking for a description of actions here not an attack on personal characteristics.

Something like: The TV is very loud.

As opposed to: You are a freaking, inconsiderate moron for having the TV that loud.

Barred Owl - charles brandt photo


Next we attach our own meaning to the behaviour. Interpretations come out of a myriad of factors – past experience, assumptions, expectations, knowledge or current mood to name just a few. We recognize that any interpretation we arrive at comes out of our own perceptions and is subjective. Because of this, it is helpful to be somewhat tentative.

Something like: I’m wondering if you realize how distracting it is to have the TV that loud.

As opposed to: I know you turn it up to get at me. You’re so petty.

Chestnut-Backed Chicadee Feb 19 2014 Hermitage - Charles Brandt photo


Expressing how we feel about another person’s behaviour can be challenging. To start with, we don’t always know what we feel. This step becomes important in clarifying feelings for ourselves and others.

Something like: I feel frustrated.

As opposed to: I feel like I could smack you up the side of the head.

Canada Geese - Charles Brandt photo

Consequences – to you or to others

A statement of consequences explains what could happen as a result of the behaviour in question. It clearly states the consequences for you, for the other person and, when appropriate, for the wider community. These consequence statements are valuable because they help you understand more clearly why you feel what you feel and it helps the other person to see the results of his or her behaviour. Good consequence statements leave nothing to the imagination.

Something like: When the TV is that loud, I can’t work effectively. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, we don’t eat.

As opposed to: How do you expect me to finish this work? If I don’t get paid for this, we don’t eat. How would you like that? Maybe you could get off your ass and go to work. That might solve all our problems.

GreatBlueHeron - Charles Brandt photo

Intention statement

This is where you make a request for the behaviour to change.

Something like: I need you to turn the TV down.

As opposed to: Turn that TV down right now or you can kiss my pay cheque goodbye. I’ll be out of here before you can even get your ass off that couch.

AmericanGoldfinch- Charles Brandt photo

How to use the clear message format

The elements need not be delivered in a set order. Make sure to word the message to represent your particular speaking style. You don’t want to sound robotic or like you’re reading from a text on assertive conversation. Take your time so you can get it right and remember – the less wordy you can be the more effective your message will be.

ChestnutBackedChicadee- Charles Brandt photo

Pulling it all together

Describe behaviour: The TV is very loud.

Interpretation: I wonder if you are aware of how distracting it is.

Feeling: I feel frustrated.

Consequences: I can’t get my work done.

Intention: Please turn the TV down.

Easy, breezy – right? Oh, if only. But seriously, the Saying What Matters lady urges you to learn the steps and give it a try. Sure, it will sound mechanical at first. It will seem awkward. But if you get this down to an art, delivering your message in an assertive and clear way will make a difference in conflict situations. I’m not saying the other person will always respond as you might wish they would. The difference will be for you. You’ll know you are doing all that you can do to handle the situation well. That puts a very different light on the other person’s behaviour.

Use the talents you have. You will make it. You will give joy to the world. Take this tip from  nature: The woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best. (Bernard Meltzer)

EurasianCollaredDove- Charles Brandt photo

For your enjoyment today, stunning bird photography compliments of Father Charles Brandt.

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Your Personal Conflict Style

In our last post, we examined our feelings about conflict and tried to wrap our heads around what the word means. Today, we’ll look at a few common ways people approach conflict situations.

Taliesen West 2 - Bruce Witzel photo


A person approaching conflict from a non-assertive stance may be thinking, I’m not okay but the other person is. When it comes to decision making, this approach allows others to take the lead. Because this conflict style, practiced to the exclusion of other styles, can result in low levels of self-sufficiency, a person may end up running away or giving in when it comes to conflict. Others can respond by showing disrespect, guilt, frustration or anger. Decisions that flow out of this approach often lack clarity and buy-in.


Aggression as an approach to conflict proves the fact that opposite reactions are not necessarily any more correct. A person approaches conflict with an equally unproductive belief in place. I’m okay and you are not. This person will make decision for others. He or she can feel high or low in self-sufficiency. As we all know, the bully may feel quite small on the inside. In a conflict situation, this person will go on the attack. Others will naturally respond with hurt, humiliation, defensiveness and avoidance. The recipe for success in conflict resolution for the aggressive person is to get in the first punch. The best offence is a good defense.

Taliesen West - Bruce Witzel photo


No one gets double the bang for their buck by combining these two approaches. The belief here is – I’m okay but you are not but I will not let you know I think that. Oh, the tangled web – right? If a decision must be made, this person will choose for others but go out of his or her way to make sure it isn’t too obvious. Levels of self-sufficiency will generally look high but are, in fact, quite low. When conflict situations arise, this person will make use of all the tools required for a sneak attack – guilt, manipulation, coercion, lies and I’ll leave you to name a few more. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this type of conflict style. Others often respond with confusion, frustration and anger.


Let’s just sit on the fence through this approach. The core belief goes back-and-forth. I’m okay and you’re not. You’re okay and I’m not. In decision-making, this person might choose for others but doesn’t realize that he or she is choosing. Levels of self-sufficiency can be high or low. In a problem-solving situation, this person will be strategic and oblique. There are two types of responses that the indirect style engenders – unknowing compliance or out-right resistance. Success is measured by getting the unwitting support of others.

Taliesen West 3 - Bruce Witzel photo


A person who approaches conflict with an assertive style, operates with the core belief that I’m okay and so are you. When it comes to decision-making, these people are quite capable of choosing for themselves and allowing others to do the same. He or she is not out to force anything on anyone. These people have a high level of self-sufficiency. In a problem-solving situation, an assertive person will seek a direct confrontation. Others often respond with mutual respect. Assertive people are looking for win-win outcomes wherever possible.

Which style is best?

At first glance, it would seem obvious that to adopt an assertive conflict-management style is the best way to go. But, like many situations in life, one size does not fit all. We need to choose the best response for a given conflict situation with a given person in a given setting. Everything about conflict comes in context.

Here are a few things to think about.

1. Relationship: in some cases people do have power over us (employee/employer) and in some cases we do have power over others (with a child). It is important to understand these dynamics.

2. The other person: We deal with different people in different ways. Think about parenting. Stepping back might work with one child but being assertive is the only way to go with another. Taking an indirect approach now and then might soothe troubled relationship waters. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when aggression is required. Someone is in danger and there is not time to discuss niceties.

3. Your goals at this time, in this place, with this person: Will you harm the other person with direct and honest confrontation? Do you need to assert yourself at all? It is possible to let some things slide. Is the problem worth a confrontation at this time? Maybe going for direct confrontation, at this time, is only setting everyone up for failure.

Metal art

What type of approach do you take to conflict situations? Get curious about your preferred ways of dealing with conflict. Can you describe ways when the assertive approach doesn’t fit?

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Managing Interpersonal Conflict

What words come to mind when you think of conflict? The Saying What Matters lady will give you a moment to come up with a few.

  • Avoid, avoid, avoid
  • Might makes right
  • Run and hide
  • Fight or flight
  • Come out strong
  • Back down if you know what’s good for you
  • Losing important resources
  • Getting what you want
  • Bad feelings
  • Broken relationships
  • The end is near

I think I’d be on firm ground when I assume that most of the words that you came up with were negative. No worries. Most of us do not approach conflict with a big smile on our faces.

Martin Luther king Jr. - photo by Dick DeMarsico - reproduction rights transferred to Library pf Congress. No copyright restriction known[People] must evolve for all human conflict a method that rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. – Martin Luther King Jr.

We are about to embark on a series of posts that deal with managing interpersonal conflict. Appropriate conflict resolution is the pinnacle of effective communication. The ability to successfully manage conflict amounts to integrating all the skills we’ve talked about through the entire Saying What Matters blog.

Before we get started, let’s make an important distinction. When we talk about managing conflict we’re talking about the conflict that occurs when two (or more) peoples’ goals are at odds. We don’t want to confuse this type of conflict with the concept of controversy which is about differing ideas. In many cases, stimulating healthy controversy is great because it generates the flow of new information and helps people make good decisions.

What is conflict?

It’s always good to start with a workable definition.

Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two people who perceive incompatible goals, scare resources, or interference from goal achievement.

Like most definitions, this one is packed with important points to consider. Let’s break this one down.

Expressed struggle: all parties are aware that a conflict exists. You can’t have a conflict all on your own. Except an internal one and that’s a topic for another post!

Perceived incompatible goals: there has to be the perception that in order to meet one person’s goals, another will not have his or her goals met. We both believe that if you get what you want, I don’t get what I want.

Perceived scarce rewards: there is the perception that there isn’t enough of whatever is needed to go around. There’s only one piece of pie. If you eat it, I won’t get any. Period.

Perceived interference: there is the perception of an active movement by one to block the goal achievement of the other or vice versa. You know damned well I want that pie. Come on, don’t deny it.

Interdependence: the people in the conflict are aware that in some important way they depend on each other to achieve individual goals. There is no more pie coming our way.

Important Aspects of Conflict

Conflict is natural: Every person in a relationship that has any depth will find him or herself dealing with conflict. Rather than wasting our time trying to avoid the inevitable, our energy would be better spent learning how to deal with conflict.

Conflict can be beneficial: Effective communication during conflict can keep a good relationship strong.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at our personal conflict styles and how they work or don’t work for us.

The Illuminated Crowd - Montreal - Bruce Witzel photo

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Responding Non-Defensively to Criticism

In the last two posts we’ve been examining the communication climate. Just as in the real world, it is weather trends that add up to climate. Defensiveness is often the cause of stormy weather and too many storms can ultimately leads to an inhospitable climate. Our last post dealt with ways we can chase away clouds on the communication horizon by lowering the defensive reactions in others. In today’s post, the Saying What Matters lady will offer some guidelines for dealing with our own defensiveness when criticism sends gale force winds our way.

Seek more information ….

  • Remember the post on the three-step perception checking tool? If you haven’t seen it or if you need a refresher, pop back and have a look. That post has been one of the most popular on the blog!
  • Though it would seem obvious, it bears saying – we need to understand what the other person is saying before we respond. More than a few posts on this blog have emphasized the tendency to hear what we think is being said rather than what is actually said.
  • Many people have a difficult time listening to criticism because they are labouring under the belief that to listen means to accept the judgement of what is being said. Once they accept, they will be forced to do something they don’t want to do. Having this belief makes raising the defensive barricades inevitable.
  • If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this – listening is simply that – listening. It bears no obligation to accept, to be defined by or to run off and change your life based on what someone else feels or thinks.

Bruce Witzel photo

Let’s step outside the dry how-to formula for some role play. Dave and Tara are leaving a restaurant after having dinner with friends. Dave has been following the Saying What Matters blog and is trying to engage in more effective communication.

Tara: I hope you had a good time in there because I certainly didn’t.

(Old Dave would have said: You always do this. Go ahead; ruin everything by bitching and complaining. Nothing is ever good enough for you.)

New Dave thinks: whatever Tara is feeling doesn’t define me so there is no need to get defensive. The important thing right now is to listen and figure out what she means.

New Dave says: I can hear you’re upset. Tell me what’s wrong.

Ask the other to be specific ….

  • It is helpful to engage in some investigative work when attempting to understand what another is saying.
  • Ask the question – Can you give me an example?
  • It’s important to be sincere. People bent on letting us know where we’ve missed the mark are highly tuned into the crap meter. We’re striving for curiosity here. It won’t work if we really don’t want to understand.
  • People often deliver criticism in the vaguest terms. There can be a few reasons for this. It may seem a less hurtful way to proceed or it may be that it is difficult to express specifics in a painful situation. When we really want to understand, this behaviour can be frustrating. Keep conveying the need for information and ask intelligent, guessing questions.

Tara: You’re just so controlling all the time.

(Old Dave: Oh great, here it comes – poor, hard-done by Tara pushed around by mean old Dave. Don’t you ever get sick of singing that tune?)

New Dave thinks: Those are sweeping statements. I’m going to have to work to get her to be more specific.

New Dave says: Can you give me an example of how I was controlling?

Bruce Witzel photo 2

Paraphrase the speaker’s ideas ….

  • Use active listening to clarify and amplify the message.
  • And remember – there is no need to engage in a guessing game. It is up to the other person to be specific when asked.

Tara: It’s all about you, you, you … all the time. You don’t give anyone else a chance.

(Old Dave: Is this because I didn’t want to spend the whole night listening to you holding court about your promotion or is it because I didn’t want to split the bill when they ordered three drinks each and we only had one? And that makes me a cheap bastard, right?)

New Dave thinks: Whoa – I’m ten steps ahead of her and what I’m assuming is really pushing my buttons. I’ve got to slow down. She’s still not being specific but I’ll take an educated guess.

New Dave says: It sounds like you saw me as overwhelming in some way. Can you tell me what I did?

Tara: You interrupted me when I was telling them about my promotion at work, you talked for at least fifteen minutes about politics and you didn’t let anyone else get a word in, you arbitrarily told the waiter none of us wanted dessert and you were pretty cutting when Jeff suggested we split the bill.

New Dave thinks: whew – ask and you shall receive!

New Dave says: That’s a lot. I interrupted you, monopolized the conversation, was highhanded and lacked tact over the whole bill thing?

Tara: (eyeing New Dave suspiciously) Ya, that about covers it.

Montreal - Bruce Witzel photo

Ask how the critic would like you to change ….

  • And accompany the request with congruent nonverbal behaviour

New Dave thinks: I’m curious about what she wants from me. It doesn’t mean I’ll be forced to do anything. I’d just like to know.

New Dave says: (with a genuine tone and open body language) How would you have liked me to do things differently?

Tara: I just want you to show a bit of sensitivity and remember that you’re not the only one who wants to talk, or have an opinion or make a decision.

Ask about the consequences of your behaviour….

  • This is a good way to see how actions that seem legitimate to you may cause issues for others.

New Dave thinks: It would be good to know if all of this is going to have repercussions for her because that will definitely bounce back on me.

New Dave says: What’s the fall out?

Tara: I was embarrassed by how you acted. I feel like I won’t be enthusiastic to go out with Jeff and Carol again, assuming they still wanted to be our friends after tonight, and that makes me sad because I like them and I really wanted all of us to be friends.

Ask if there is anything else ….

  • Asking this might help uncover other issues or the real issue underlying the surface criticism.
  • This is especially useful if you intuit that the emotional level invested in the criticism is out of proportion to the issue at hand.

New Dave thinks: Tara still seems really upset. I wonder if there’s more to this.

New Dave says: Is there anything else going on, Tara?

Tara: (after a significant pause) Sometimes I get the feeling that you aren’t all that excited about my promotion.

New Dave thinks: Shit, I wish she didn’t know me so well.

New Dave says : I guess you’ve got me there. I want to be and most of the time, I am. Then I get down about lagging behind on my own career plans and I feel like I can’t listen to how great you’re doing.

Memorial Sculpture Garden - Bruce Witzel photo

Agree with the critic ….

  • We can agree with the critic and still maintain the integrity of our own position.
  • We can agree with the critic without apologizing for doing things we don’t think we need apologize for.
  • The Saying What Matters lady knows that sounds like pie in the sky but it is possible.
  • How?
  • Agree with the facts. After all, one can’t really argue with the facts. If one was late, one was late.
  • Agree with the critic’s perspective by saying and meaning – I understand why you feel that way.

New Dave thinks: It was wrong the way I cut her off and I do get how she feels.

New Dave says: I did interrupt you when you were talking about your promotion, Tara, and I’m sorry about that. I understand why you didn’t have the greatest time tonight and I will be thinking about everything you’ve said.

Tara: (grabbing Dave’s hand as they walk) Thanks for that. I was probably overreacting to things because I really want you to be happy for me … about the promotion.

New Dave’s thinks: I’ve got to deal with my insecurities so I don’t end up raining on Tara’s parade. I’m passionate about politics but it wouldn’t hurt to temper that and let other people express their opinions, too. And it wasn’t fifteen minutes – more like ten. Tara is overreacting about the dessert issue – no one wanted dessert after that dinner. Tara’s so invested in wanting Jeff and Carol to be our friends. She doesn’t see that every time we’re out with them, he does the same thing when it comes to paying the bill. He has to know on some level it isn’t fair. But, I could have handled the whole thing more tactfully and before we go out with them again, I will discuss how I feel about this with Tara so we can come up with a strategy.

To sum up ….

The Saying What Matters lady apologizes for such a lengthy post. Tara and Dave ended up stretching things out. In a good way! I’m sure we can all see that old Dave’s defensive responses would have amped up the storm to hurricane force winds. By listening and accepting Tara’s criticism (while not allowing himself to become defensive or letting Tara’s feelings and thoughts define him), Dave managed to affirm Tara’s feelings, uncover a deeper issue within their relationship and learn some important things about himself. Win, win.

So – get curious. How often does meeting criticism with defensiveness work? Is it possible to take a chance by keeping the defences down long enough to listen?

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Defensiveness – Causes and Remedies

Defensive reactions can spiral through our relationships and cause real problem. The Saying What Matters lady would contend that the root of such behaviour is the desire to save face. We don’t want to hear messages that will challenge our hard won self-concept. We seek the approval of others, especially those close to us – this is normal. So, what happens to get these spirals going and what can we do to turn things around?

Chain Reactions

  1. We feel attacked in some way. This is a matter of perception but perceptions shape our realities.
  2. We do not accept the incoming perception of attack. We might experience cognitive dissonance – we have two pieces of conflicting material to deal with (self-concept and incoming perception of attack).
  3. We respond – accept the information and change the self accordingly or reject it and stay the same

Three Choices

Attack the critic with verbal aggression or sarcasm. We’ve all been there, right?

Husband: Is that a designer label on that bag?

Wife: Oh right … you’re one to talk. You’re such a phoney. What about your poker game last week? What about that mid-life crisis car in the driveway?

Distort the critical information by rationalizing, compensating or regressing. The above example can go double duty for all of the above.

Avoid the information – physically steer clear of the person dishing out what one doesn’t want to hear, mentally block the message, pretend we don’t care, displace the bad feelings by venting on others.

Avoidance strategies are as varied as the people who practice them. We all sing our own form of la-la-la-la with our fingers in our ears at times. The wife leaves the room and yells at the kids. The husband kicks the dog. You get the picture.

How to Prevent Defensiveness in Others

The Saying What Matters lady is here to tell you, the main way to stop another’s defensiveness is by using your competent communication ability. An article written by Jack Gibbs, entitled, Defensive Communication, was discovered at the University of Toledo in 1988.  The opposing categories that Gibb came up with flowed from research done for the Office of Naval Research. Gibb later wrote that this particular article had been more widely distributed than any of his other work. For good reason. The contrast between the opposing ways of responding to others is immediate and powerful.

Jack R. Gibb – Categories of Defensive Interaction

You language – causes others to feel defensive

I language – helps others feel supported

Evaluate – You don’t have a clue, do you?

Describe – When I see the way the laundry has turned out, I wonder if you understood how I wanted it sorted?

Control – You need to get a hold of yourself, right now.

Problem solve – What do you need from me right now?

Strategy or Manipulation – You’ll look like an idiot if you do that. Just trust me, I know more about this than you do.

Spontaneity – no hidden agendas – I’m not really sure how to explain this but I think you’re making a mistake. Let’s talk it through.

Neutrality – You’ll only make yourself unhappy acting that way.

Empathy – I can see how upset you are. I want to understand.

Superiority – You should have listened to my advice in the first place

Equality – I wonder what we can come up with to solve this problem.

Certainty – You are wrong.

Provisional – I was thinking we might look at the situation this way. What do you think?

Pompei exhibit - Getty Villa - Bruce Witzel photo

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How is Your Communication Climate?

The Saying What Matters lady wishes all of you good communication for 2015. The next few posts will focus on the communication climate – what it is and how we can improve it as well as dealing with that pesky, old trickster called conflict.

It may be helpful to step outside relationships and communication for a moment and think about the difference between climate and weather. Weather deals with day to day variations, while climate refers to the average daily weather of a specific place over an extended period of time. It takes a while for climate data to accumulate but rest assured, all the day-to-day weather incidents play their part.

A definition of what is meant by the communication climate.

  • The emotional tone of the relationship in which communication takes place – positive and affirming or negative and disaffirming and all the stops on the road between those two ends of the spectrum.
  • The climate settles into a specific pattern based on how people interpret the day-to-day weather of the relationship.
  • A positive emotional climate is vital to relationship success – you think? Talk about stating the obvious, Saying What Matters lady.
  • We look for and stay in relationships in which the climate affirms and supports us – once again – dah!

The messages we receive during communication elicit different emotional responses and contribute to the daily weather of a relationship and ultimately the climate. Affirming messages make us feel valued. Disaffirming messages lead us to believe the other has a lack of regard for us and often leads to defensive responses.

Let’s go the positive route first and think about what a confirming message consists of and how it makes us feel.

  • There will be recognition – the other person really sees us and acknowledges us.
  • There will be acceptance of our right to our ideas and feelings.
  • The other person will demonstrate good listening skills when we speak.
  • The other person asks appropriate questions and paraphrases back effectively.
  • We will feel that the other endorses our right to speak and be heard.

Naturally, it’s difficult to have all those great things going on at once, but what we’re looking for here is a general trend or direction to our communication.

Now we’ll take a look at the other side of the coin, disconfirming messages.

  • They basically do the opposite of everything we looked at above.
  • There can be verbal abuse, complaining, interrupting, impervious, irrelevant, impersonal, clichéd tangential, ambiguous, incongruous and take-away (using another’s remarks as a starting part to shift the conversation to self), responses – whew!

No one wants to live in a climate characterized by disconfirming communication. The occasional clouds, rain and even storms will pass. As Annie would sing and have us believe, the sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar.  But if the climate is constant storms or dry spells, who wants to live at the Arctic Circle or in the middle of the Gobi Desert?

Think accretion here – that drip, drip, drip that eventually floods an entire house. This is what a constant dose of disaffirming messages can do to a communication climate. I once watched some news coverage of people on the shores of a frozen lake as the wind whipped up. They were laughing and pointing as the ice crept onto the shore. The laughing stopped when the ice began to slowly but surely push over homes and everything in its path.

So, get curious. We don’t want to fiddle while Rome burns down around our collective ears.

What is the climate of your various communication relationships? Have good weather days outweighed bad weather days and thus the climate is tipped to sunnier prospects? Or have unrelenting days of bad weather led to a climate not best suited for human habitation?

Rainbow - Bruce Witzel photo

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Holiday Survival 2014

The holiday season is upon us.  Many of us will throw wide our doors or travel miles to be with family. But, let’s be honest – these times can be joy-filled, trying and overwhelmingly painful – all within the space of one conversation.

Ah, family. Like it or not, these people had a role in forming us. There are days when we all wish we could have landed on this earth fully formed as the adult we present to the world today but that is a playful fantasy at best and a delusional problem at worst.

How do we get through those times when family encounters make us gnash our teeth or cause us untold suffering?

Let’s focus on ourselves as agents of change. The truth is, we have no power over how anyone else acts so we might as well be realistic. And there is always the outside possibility that our different response can break a pattern or change an entire dynamic.

The next time a family member makes that one comment that always gets under your skin and makes you want to scream – oh, come on, now – you know what I mean. Are you still working at that go nowhere job? I guess you’re struggling with that extra baby weigh, hey? Still got that beer belly, I see. Well, another year and no ring on that finger. Can’t believe you’re still driving that rust bucket of a car. Are you still biting your nails? Oh, are you still a vegetarian, dear? Does that mean you won’t eat the turkey? Pregnant again? No kids yet, hey? People really knew how to discipline their kids in my day – hint, hint.

Okay, I better stop before I drive myself crazy. The Saying What Matters lady suggests that this year you plan out a different response than your usual.

If you generally get angry and fire-back an equally cutting remark, try something different. Maybe get up and hug the person. Put a smile on your face and move on.

If you usually smoulder and withdraw, work on the opposite. Use a method that is tried and true with parents of young children. Divert. Suggest that the two of you get busy on a shared task, pull out your iPhone and ask if the person wants to see your pictures of the Grand Canyon. Use your imagination.

If you’re overwhelmed with hurt and you usually hide that the best you can maybe you’d be better to let the tears fall down your face. You might feel better even if no one else does. And when you’re accused of ruining the entire turkey dinner you can quietly reply, “That certainly wasn’t my intention.” Blow your nose and get on with enjoying the meal.

Let’s remember – holiday gatherings are not the time for changing a person to the perfect mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter by pointing out everything that person does that drives us insane. It won’t work, so why bother.

We’re visiting with these people for a reason. We love them. They belong to us and us to them for better or worse. The Saying What Matters lady says be prepared for the glitches and the painful moments but don’t focus on them. Move on and have a good time.

I heard something neat from my favourite CBC radio and TV personality, George Stroumboulopoulus and I’ll leave you with his thoughts. We each have two wolves inside of us – the good wolf and the bad wolf. The bad wolf is the one that is always putting out the negative stuff, pulling us down, getting us into situations we would rather not be in. The good wolf is just the opposite. The good wolf is all about creating positive experiences for ourselves and others. Whichever wolf we feed gets stronger. So, let’s get out there and feed the good wolf, my friends.

Xmas lights - Bruce Witzel photo

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