Next time you find yourself at an impasse trying to communicate with someone or you get into another one of those dead-end disagreements with someone with whom you often argue without resolving anything, consider what follows here.
Every conversation happens on two levels. First, there is the content level. On this level, you talk about your ideas, values, plans, and perspectives, as does the person you are talking to. You’re sharing these, so that you can understand each other or to be convincing.
In many conversations, this is enough. At other times, things get tricky, like when someone is emotional, there are very important issues being disputed or one party has a high investment in a particular outcome. When that happens, interacting only on the content level usually gets you nowhere. Granted, one party could get weary of the fight and just give in, but that is rarely a good outcome.
You can get past such a standoff by being more aware of the second level, which is the process level. The issues on the process level are about the ways that people interact and focus on things like tone of voice, body posture, and facial expressions. The most important process issue, though, is showing that you are really listening and responding, that you care about someone as a person. This itself sends a message of respect, that you value someone and what they say.
Take this example. A man and a woman are in a troubled marriage. He has had a brief affair. They get together to discuss their situation and air their differences, but rather than solve anything, they end up in a blazing argument. At the end, they’re both angry and confused and doubtful that their marriage, which is important to both, can actually survive.
Why did it go so wrong? When she shared how she felt, he thought she was blaming him for all their problems and he wanted her to see that their marriage wasn’t working for him either. He was focusing on content and defended himself by coming back with her failings as a wife. His message was “It isn’t all my fault,” and he ended up sounding like he was justifying himself to a woman that he had deeply hurt.
This justifying of oneself and arguing about the facts is an easy trap to fall into and lots of people do it, but this was a moment when he needed to switch gears and not focus on his own grievances (the time for that will come). It was more important that she knew that he was attentively listening, that he was hearing her pain and validating that she is important to him with his responses.
Maybe he could say “I can see why you feel like that” when she poured out her pain or “I hadn’t thought about it that way” when he saw how they looked at things very differently. “I didn’t know that you were as frustrated as I was” would clarify that he understood how she had been experiencing their relationship. Likewise, “I’m not sure I understand” would show that he wants to do just that. “That’s not clear. Could you explain that a bit more?” means that you are really trying to get the whole story.
All of these convey some factual information, but even more important, they communicate interest and an investment in the relationship. At times, this message is so much more vital than whatever he said or she said, and this applies in marriage, with kids, among co-workers, and between friends.
Too often, people listen not to understand, they listen to respond. Or more accurately, they listen to react, which is really what the husband was doing when he was so pressured to defend himself. It’s easy to see when someone is just biding their time until they can get a word in. These are the people of whom we say “they hear, but they don’t listen,” whereas a focus on the process level makes it clear that true and deep listening is really going on.
Mike S., MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 1997 as an EAP Counselor. He has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in Social Work with a specialty certificate in alcohol and drug abuse treatment from Western Michigan University. Prior to joining Empathia, he worked as a substance abuse counselor and in a program for adolescent sexual offenders. Mike likes reading, music, movies and travel.
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