Good communicators pay attention to the tone of the words and the nonverbal cues of the speaker. Sometimes, these things undermine the actual meaning of the words themselves.
To start, it is helps to be mindful of our tone, posture, hand gestures, head positioning, eye contact, breathing, facial expressions and movements. Nodding, smiling, laughing, frowning and verbalizing (for example, “I see” or “mm-hmm”) show the speaker that we are tuned in to their words.
When the speaker has finished speaking, rephrase key points of what they said. For example, “Help me understand. What I hear you saying is…” and then mention the feeling that we perceive. The purpose of paraphrasing is not simply to parrot back what was said, but to create communication and dialogue. It also improves remembering!
It helps to reflect on our motivations, by asking ourself “What am I trying to achieve?” Is the conversation about “winning” an argument or is it about discovering greater understanding? If one person wants to hurt, prove something, judge, seek revenge or make themselves look good, that’s not communication, it’s grandstanding.
When faced with criticism, blame or defensive false accusations, we can say, “It’s awful, isn’t it!” or, “I don’t blame you for being angry” or “I never thought of it that way.” We are just letting them know we heard what they said!
Rather then offer explanations, counter-critiques, or defenses, we can choose to do something else instead, such as:
• We can agree with them; e.g., “It certainly seems like I’m hard to get along with.” We are not agreeing with the facts of the matter, we are agreeing that they feel the way they feel. Feelings are like opinions and perceptions in that they are subjective, without a factual basis.
• We can choose to agree that they are upset: “It’s so frustrating when this happens, isn’t it.” We do not need to go on and on defending the inaccuracy of their accusations, trying to win a pardon for our offense against them. We are not required to defend against fiction, they are not a judge and we are not guilty. We do not need to explain our choice to live in the real world.
It’s not a crime, we do not have to convict them of our innocence.
• We can say, “I can tell you are angry.” This is not a confession of guilt. It is an observation of their tone, words and body language. We are just acknowledging that we can tell they are in emotional pain.
• We can say “It must make you angry when that happens. I don’t blame you, I’d be angry too if that happened to me.” This is an appropriate validation of the other person’s anger and of their worth as a person. When we validate the other person’s anger, we are validating their right to have feelings in spite of their unpleasant choice in how they are being conveyed.
• We can choose to calm ourself down, and put our own anger in a moderate, manageable perspective: “What difference does it make? Just because they said it, doesn’t make it literally true. It’s how they feel in the present. It’s not a fact. It’s just their opinion and perception in the moment.”
Below are other useful responses when faced with another’s intense emotion:
• “It seems that way sometimes doesn’t it?”
• “I never thought of it that way.”
• “You may have a point.”
• “I don’t know how you stand it.”
• “You got a real problem there, I don’t know what to tell you.”
• “It’s just awful, isn’t it.”
• “Thanks for calling that to my attention.”
• “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
A key point, we must be mindful of our tone to ensure we are not being sarcastic, dismissive, or provocative. Have you ever taken a road trip and gotten lost? You don’t know where you are and feel a bit confused on what to do. Do you stop and get directions? Do you turn around? Do you pull over for the night? Do you keep going? You’re concerned, confused, and unsure what direction to go. That is the tone to use, confused. Really you don’t know what’s going on and why the other person is making these false accusations. You speak slow and softer, but deliberate and clear.