Here are some skills that I find help to create constructive interpersonal conversations, especially about emotional or difficult subject matter:
1) Stephen Covey recommended in his excellent book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” to seek first to clearly understand the other person, then seek for them to clearly understand you. I have found that communication about difficult subject matter works best if we first let the other person know that we understand their experiences, feelings, and needs – to their full satisfaction – and then express our experiences, feelings, and needs as clearly as we are able.
2) Try to deeply understand the other person is saying, to have a feeling of how the world looks to them, and have them know that they are understood, whether we agreed with and enjoyed what they said, or not.
3) The psychologist Karen Horney made a list of three ways to be neurotic:
* To “move against people” – to be insulting and name-calling, argumentative, attacking, condescending, cruel, and/or abusive
* To “move towards people” – to be overly nice, placating, people-pleasing, weak, spineless, to always give up your needs to try to please others
* To “move away from people” – to be cold, withdrawn, isolated, and solitary, to neglect and ignore others, to be self-absorbed, to do with less interpersonal love and connection
These are also three styles of interpersonal conflict resolution that are do not work so well in the long term. Instead, we can stand upright among other people, neither leaning in nor away, intimate and open-hearted, yet in integrity with ourselves.
4) As the amazing Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NonViolent Communication, suggested, a key for self-expression is to only say things that are “inarguable” and incontrovertible.
“When you were yelling before …” – well, the person might not believe that they were yelling. A more inarguable way of saying the same thing would be, “When you expressed yourself as you did before …”, or “When we were having our discussion before …”.
“You’re a controlling jerk” – well, most people would argue with you that they are not controlling jerks. “I was feeling ‘controlled’ …” – many people would also argue with this, retorting, “I was not controlling you!”. But it is pretty inarguable to say, “While you were speaking, I was feeling a shortness of breath, and an unpleasant constricted feeling” – who can argue with you about the truth of your own experience?
5) Try to listen to what is inarguable in what another person is saying. If they call us a “controlling jerk”, instead of feeling enraged and attacking them back, or feeling ashamed and defeated, we can instead hear what they are saying to us as actually meaning something more like, “While you were speaking, I was feeling a shortness of breath, and an unpleasant constricted feeling” – which is, of course, easier to accept and digest.
6) Once we are ready to express ourselves, here is a model that we can use :
* This is what happened – describe events in as neutral a way as possible, only state facts that are inarguable
* This is how I interpreted what happened
* This is what I emotionally felt – both body sensations and emotions, staying away from semi-accusatory words that are not true emotions, like, “I felt ignored”, “I felt manipulated”, or “I felt controlled”
* These are the needs that I am feeling around this situation – a need for love, a need for respect, a need for people to do what they tell me they say they will do
* This is what I would like from you in the future