An important way you grow in the middle of challenges is to choose the person you want to be. This is not as easy as it might seem. I find it’s always helpful to put the vision into writing, spelling out what I want, in entirely positive terms.
I recently did this for my personal communication, and thought I would share the process.
The impetus was email. I’m learning a lot about myself by examining my frustration with email. It turns out, my issues do not concern email per se. They concern my relationships. I’m overextended, but I don’t want to say “no” to people. This comes from a deep fear of hurting someone’s feelings, which distorts my reactions, makes me weirdly defensive, and likely causes me to hurt people’s feelings more than I intend.
A coach pointed out to me that I don’t control how other people feel, so this is mistaken at root. True. I will add that it is a huge mistake to set as your goal to make someone feel a certain way, including yourself. You do not have direct control over your own emotions, much less others.
Philosophically, it’s the mistake of secondhandedness if it’s other people, or emotionalism if it’s you. In either case, you turn your attention to parsing emotional reactions instead of gaining values in the world.
Psychologically, this is a self-defeating undertaking, because evidence of the “wrong” emotions will trigger fear, doubt, frustration, etc. that just make it more difficult to take constructive steps. In others, you wind up misreading their emotions, and miscommunicating. In yourself, you start to feel helpless.
This logical analysis left me in a bit of puzzle. I knew there was something right about not wanting to hurt other people, but my fear of doing so was wildly distorting my reactions. I needed to reconceptualize the issue. There’s no such thing as a “golden mean.” Whenever you think that you just need to avoid the extremes, such as “you can be too worried or not worried enough about hurting other people,” you can bet that you have not gotten to the real issue.
So, I picked up the phone and called my friend, colleague, and mentor, Jeff Brown. He’s the certified Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer who I do the “Rationally Connected Conversations” (RCC) work with. I knew he would have thought about this exact issue, and he had. In our conversation, he reminded me that if you stay loyal to your value system as you deal with others (which is what RCC helps you do), both parties are more likely to stay emotionally grounded, and be able to navigate any conflict that ensues.
But even so, sometimes the other person’s response will trigger something in you. Maybe they will mistake your intentions, or take your action personally, and you feel angry or hurt in response. Then there will be some more self-work to do, and you may need to distance yourself from them if you don’t have the resources. We had a very interesting conversation about the difference between mourning these situations versus being resigned to them.
Talking with Jeff cemented the vision for how I wanted to behave with people, specifically given this outsized fear I have. It reminded me that doing the right thing — taking the best action possible to you right now — doesn’t guarantee you will get the results you wanted. But it does guarantee that you can maximize the speed of your learning if a different result ensues. I never need to be afraid of the undesired outcome, because it’s an opportunity for targeted learning.
After I hung up the phone, I wrote out the following vision for myself, based on everything I have worked on for decades to improve my personal relationships. (This has been reformatted to make it more objective.)
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Know the Purpose of a Conversation
I will know my value at stake when I communicate. Maybe my value is just courtesy. Maybe it is something more. I need this to be explicit.
I will check that my purpose in communicating is in principle shared with the other people.
Kindly Say No if I Am Not Interested
If I sense a mismatch in values, I will be authentic about my lack of shared interest.
If I can offer something to support another person to achieve the value, by doing something that takes under 2 minutes, I will do so out of general goodwill. (Hat Tip to Bruce Turkel)
If I do not know of a fast way to support the other person, I will offer empathy in less than 2 minutes.
Respect Our Individual Priorities
I will make requests, not demands of other people.
When I make requests, I will share my reasons for the request, i.e., the value at stake for me.
Before I make a request of someone else, I will make sure that I would spend time on this project. My commitment should be bigger than the other person’s. That way, his or her response will be very valuable to me, and my time to respond will already be motivated and justified.
If another person has gone out of his or her way to help me, I will show my deep gratitude. This can be fast; it need not be elaborate.
Always Take Care of Myself in Difficult Conversations
I will listen with “giraffe ears” to other people so that I am less reactive. (Listening with “giraffe ears” means, I will look through the criticism and negativity to the values at stake for them.)
If I get emotionally triggered by someone else, I will withdraw until I can take care of myself. My first priority is self-care.
Engage in a Difficult Conversation Only When and If I Am Ready
After being triggered, I am ready to engage with people only after I am ready both to give them empathy, and to express myself authentically.
If we’ve both been triggered, do not attempt to address the issue by email.
Sometimes I will choose other priorities instead of devoting the time and energy to sort out the issue with the other person. I will make this decision consciously, accept the decision not to engage fully, and mourn the values as needed.
I will hold all of my values with care: harmony, timeliness, self-care, understanding, etc., even though I can’t gain them all at once at the moment.
I will remember that if a value is important enough, I can gain it eventually.
Give Advice Objectively
I will give advice only when asked, and only when I know the value to me in giving it.
I will remember that other people know their context best. I will make sure I know why they want the advice prior to plunging in.
When I am tempted to give unsolicited advice, I will do some internal work to identify the value at stake for me. Why do I feel that desire? I could then express my desire in the form of a request to offer advice.
Take My Fear Seriously
If someone feels hurt or upset as a result of these actions, I will recognize I need empathy.
I will follow all of the advice for taking care of myself and then engaging or not.
I will let myself feel this fear, and learn about myself, regardless of how the other person reacts, regardless of whether I need a timeout, regardless of whether I re-engage this time.
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I hope its length won’t intimidate you. Usually a vision is just a paragraph.
This extensive vision didn’t come out of nowhere. I have been studying NVC for over 10 years. I have helped teach the concrete skills I mention to dozens of people, in in-person intensives and in the Thinking Lab.
But I have never put it into words before. I have never organized my thoughts. My frustration over email gave me an opening to see how I want to put all of my learning into practice. I realized that my problems with email don’t have anything to do with time or how fast I reply. They are about wanting to connect, rationally, with all of my correspondents.
Will I stop being frustrated by email? Likely not. But I do know that thanks to this exercise, I will be a better communicator, I’ll reduce my contribution to my email problems, and I’ll be better able to handle issues that still come my way, because I have a vision of how I want to respond, in any communication.