In the previous blog (How to Say No to Others), we compared communication to a game of tennis: sometimes we need power; sometimes we need a soft touch. Yet, we always have to keep the ball in bounds. We discussed the boundary of saying “no” to others when appropriate to do so. In this blog, we will discuss the other boundary: how to make requests in a way that other people are likely to hear.
Appropriately asking for something roughly follows the following formula ₁:
“When X happens, I feel Y. I need Z. Can we work something out? What do you think?”
X is the behavior that is the problem, Y is how the behavior impacts you, and Z is what you need instead. The more specific you can be about Z, the better. (Remember, others can’t read your mind). This formula does not focus on labeling others (“I feel like you never listen to me!”; “Why are you always like this?!?”). It’s also clear and shows a willingness to negotiate (vs. making demands or having a tantrum).
Let’s say that a man named Jeff is burning out at a job that requires too much of him. He wants to request more down time to his boss. Here is how it may sound when he approaches his boss:
“When I work 70 hours a week (X, the problem), I feel myself burning out (Y, the impact). I need to work out a way to be with my family more (Z, a specific—not implied—declaration of what Jeff wanted). What do you think?”
Even if he said “no”, it isn’t likely that Jeff’s boss would perceive this request as either hostile or disrespectful—two things Jeff is probably afraid of. If needed, Jeff could also express how less hours at work would actually be in the best interest of his job (“I think if I keep burning out, I won’t be as productive in the long run”). But if Jeff’s boss feels included in Jeff’s decision, he is likely to be less resistant. Because Jeff also approached his boss at a time when his boss was calm (his boss was not at a “screw you” moment; see last blog), his boss was also more open. The timing of our request makes a difference ₂.
But let’s say that Jeff’s boss responds with, “I’m sorry, but we need you here. We can’t afford to lose you even a little bit,” Jeff could have at least countered with, “Okay, but I want to look at this again. For instance, I will keep working the same hours, but after this project is finished, can we look at this again?” This is a form of “yes…but” that most bosses would be receptive to; however, if Jeff’s boss was not willing to negotiate, then Jeff would have to ask himself if this job was worth keeping.
Sadly, most people don’t include others in their plans. Instead of approaching others preventively, they communicate reactively. They make requests when they (or others) are upset. The timing of our requests can make our requests sound like a demand or a threat, even if that wasn’t our intention. A person’s legitimate needs can get overlooked because of the hostile way they are expressed. In other words, no one can hear what you say because of how you say it. Those with good interpersonal ability have the foresight to approach others privately and calmly before a problem spins out of control. The main point is that it isn’t enough to be “right”; an emotionally-mature person can…
…say the right thing (“Is what I’m saying accurate? Is it really my business?”)
…at the right time (“Am I or the other person at a ‘screw you’ point?”)
…to the right person (“Am I talking directly to the person, or am I just gossiping and being passive aggressive?”)
…in the right way (“What does my tone of voice sound like?”) ₃
Effective communication is made up of all four factors, and consideration of all four factors maximizes the chance of success.
This discussion assumes none of your major rights are being violated. Some lines shouldn’t be crossed: if you’re being beaten or someone is in danger, don’t bother polishing your language by making the request in just the right way or at the right time—take action now. While many problems don’t require such drastic measures, don’t we owe it to ourselves to resolve problems in a way that maximizes the chance of success and minimizes drama? “But doesn’t drama work?” I had one patient ask me. Well, in a sense, yes… or we wouldn’t do it. But making a scene or doing something dramatic only works if it happens rarely. Otherwise, you are just the dramatic/angry person who is “going off again.” People soon roll their eyes and dismiss you—even if your point (and pain) are legitimate. To use an analogy from finance, frequent drama is a high-cost investment with an increasingly lower and lower rate of return. Many people amp up the crazy so others will pay attention, but others soon just tune them out. An increasing pile of dramatic, crazy behavior results in the person feeling more alone and others becoming more distant and angry. What makes for good reality television very rarely makes for good reality.
Summary of Communication Skill #2: Making Requests
- Before opening your mouth, ask yourself if what you are saying (1) is the right thing, (2) at the right time, (3) to the right person, and (4) in the right way.
- Make your requests directly (no hint dropping), when you’re in private, and when everyone is in a good place emotionally. For instance, approaching someone when he is in a hurry probably won’t make things go smoothly. If you’re unsure, ask: “I have something important to ask you. Do you have a few minutes now or would later work better?” If nothing else, this will allow you to get their attention so they don’t minimize what you’re saying because they’re too busy doing something else.
- Consider using the following formula when you make your request: “When X happens (the problem), I feel Y (personal impact). I need Z (clearly stated request). Can we work something out? What do you think?” You’re modeling flexibility and openness, but you’re also being short and sweet. Don’t unnecessarily drag the request out.
- If the other person is still resistant, try reflective listening (see skill #3 below).
- If the person is still resistant, consider renegotiating a specific timeframe (“Can we look at this again in a few weeks?”).
- If the other person is still resistant and unwilling to be flexible, you need to consider one of two paths forward: (1) negotiating different expectations in the relationship; or (2) cutting your losses (see my next blog Dealing with Toxic Personalities).
Why Listening is More Than Just a Nice Cliché
In this and in the previous blog, we’ve talked about two communication skills: saying no effectively and making requests effectively. But many times these first two skills fail because still still another skill required. This third skill is the skill of reflective listening.
Reflective listening is like compassion: it’s something everyone thinks they already know everything about, even though few of us actually practice it. Few people practice reflective listening because doing so requires us to put our expectations and egos aside. Instead of reflective listening, we do reactive listening. When our requests run into resistance, we become reactive: instead of listening and trying to understand the other person’s point of view, we become rigid and double-down on what we already believe. In this state of mind, we rarely talk to people; instead, we just talk to caricatures.
An old adage says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There may be some truth in this, but a critical element is missing. A more correct adage would be, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you understand.” People will be more resistant if they don’t feel like the other person has made a good-faith effort to understand their point of view. So before you lecture (“How many times do we have to talk about this?!?”), problem solve ( “Well, why don’t you try this…”) or set limits (“Over my dead body are you going to…”), it may be helpful to try to understand the other person’s fear.
Until you’re able to see another person’s fear, you’ll be unable to see the person. You’ll only see a cheap projection of them, and the echo chamber of your mind will rehash the same ineffective solutions. It isn’t that your solutions are bad; they just didn’t include the fears of others. Inclusion is a slow process, but the only thing slower than inclusion is to ignore it completely. Before you can solve a problem, you have to find a consensus; yet, before you can find a consensus you have to take the time to listen and understand. And there is nothing more important to understand than what a person fears. Here is the priority list:
Understanding a person’s fear leads to…
…helping the person feel understood, which leads to…
…collaboration, which leads to…
…effective, mutual problem-solving.
But, in our rush to satisfy our pride, placate our fear, or accomplish our to-do lists, we often do the opposite:
Rushed problem-solving is caused by…
… poor collaboration, which is caused by…
… poor mutual understanding, which is caused by…
… ignoring someone else’s fears—usually because we only see our own.
Self-absorption is the real enemy, not the caricature of the person you think you’re talking to.
The third communication skill of reflective listening isn’t thought of as a communication skill because it requires so few words. But it does require awareness, compassion, and humility. We have to put our perceptions aside momentarily; therefore, few people are ready to do reflective listening. But for those who are ready, here are a couple of ideas to get things started:
Point #1: First Seek to Validate. The first goal of reflective listening is not to solve a problem but to validate the emotional need underlying the person’s resistance. Once again, this doesn’t mean you have to agree with the person’s resistance, it simply means you are trying to understand where they are coming from. As a general rule, the more someone resists, the more afraid he is of something. The least we can do is try to understand this fear before we move forward. Doing so often requires us to set aside our own fear or pride.
Point #2: Use Reflective Verbal and Body Language. The best way to communicate that you are trying to understand the other person’s perspective is to reflect back what he is saying. Reflection means paraphrasing (not parroting back) the person’s underlying concerns and feelings. This is especially important when interacting with someone insecure, like most teenagers:
Teen: “I’m quitting school!”
Parent: “What’s up?” (Not: “Like hell you are!”, which is setting limits)
Teen: “My teachers are totally unfair.”
Parent: “It sounds really frustrating.” (The parent is reflecting feelings. Not: “I’m sure some of your teachers are understanding”, which may be true, but the teen will feel this is a lecture and will immediately tune out)
Teen: “Yeah, they expect all of this work to be turned in. There just isn’t enough time.”
Parent: “Sounds like the pressure to turn in everything is pretty intense.” (Reflecting content. Not: “Well, have you tried talking to them about how you feel?”, which may be something to try later, but this is problem solving too soon and problem solving too soon creates resistance).
You’ll know you are using reflective listening correctly when you can see the other person’s body start to relax. It’s really hard to stay mad at someone who is making a good-faith effort to understand you.
Yet, research demonstrates that our brains are designed to synchronize with the brain of the person with whom we are interacting (Mills & Conboy, 2009). This means we should also be careful about our body language. The marriage researcher John Gottman (2015) has been able to successfully predict which marriages stay together based on whether or not a couple uses what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (shutting down). If our body or tone of voice is communicating any of the four horsemen (exasperated sighs, eye rolls, crossed arms, sarcasm, interruption), expect things to go poorly. You can match or reflect the person’s mood without communicating hostility (Baylin & Hughes, 2016). If the person is demonstrating sadness, you can reflect sadness in your voice. If the person is angry, you can speak more animatedly (without criticism). Using our body language to positively communicate with others is an essential way to reflect understanding.
Point #3: Summarizing and Going Deeper. Keep summarizing the person’s feelings with statements like, “let me see if I got this…” and try to reflect what they’ve said. Be sure to end with, “Is that right?” to make sure you aren’t assuming anything. Keep doing this until you can see the person becoming less defensive. For example, they may begin to breathe a little easier or their arms may uncross. Behavioral cues like these are so much more important than the actual content of what a person is saying. Again, if you don’t see them relax, there is a very good chance you’ve slipped back into premature problem-solving, lecturing, or limit-setting.
Parent (continuing from above): “Let me see if I got this: Right now, school is really hard because of everything that is expected of you. It doesn’t seem like there is enough time to turn things in. You’re really frustrated right now. Is that right?”
Teen [who visibly seems more relaxed and less defensive]: “Yeah, it’s just so hard….”
Once you see that the other person is becoming a little less defensive, ask a simple question, “What else?” The person’s initial resistance is usually just superficial. Only after they feel heard will they say what is really bothering them or what they really fear. Going deeper means making sure you have the whole story; otherwise, you’ll start problem solving something that’s not the heart of the matter, and you’ll wind up chasing ghosts that don’t exist.
Teen [continuing from above]: “… that no one gets me.”
Parent: “You’re probably right. I sometimes forget how hard it was. What else?” (Not: “I was your age once too, you’ll be fine….”, which may be true but will still be perceived as lecturing)
Teen [more slowly]: “Jenny told Mike that I like him. I can’t believe she went behind my back like that.”
Parent: [Continues to reflect, summarize, and say “What else?” until teen acknowledges that everything is on the table.]
Because the parent didn’t jump the gun by prematurely trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist, we now know the real reason why the teen wants to quit school: peer drama. The concerns of school quitting and homework were merely smokescreens for an issue that (for the teen, at least) is more anxiety provoking.
Point #4: Asking for Permission. The final step in using reflective listening is to thank the person for opening up and give them a simple choice: do they need you to listen more or do they actually want your help solving the problem? No one likes to be given advice when they didn’t ask for it. It’s an important sign of respect when you ask the person for his permission before sharing your ideas. If they need you to listen more, they will keep talking (and you need to keep listening). If they give you permission to share, however, give them the first chance to solve the problem: no one likes to be told things they’ve heard before.
Parent: “I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time, but thanks for telling me what’s going on. Do you want me to listen more or do you want to know what I think?”
Teen: “I guess it would be okay, but I don’t know what to do.” (Warning: If they teen says something defensive like, “Go ahead,it’s hopeless”, then don’t fall for the trap: you need to spend more time listening)
Parent: “Well I have some ideas, but what are some things you’ve already tried or thought about?”
Reflective listening doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions along the way if you don’t understand something, just make sure you’re not asking leading questions. For instance, there is a big difference between, “What did the teacher say next?” and “Why do you think the teacher said that?” (Implication: you must have done something wrong to make the teacher act that way).
The steps of seeking validation, using reflective language, summarizing and going deeper, and asking permission aren’t rocket science; yet, most people don’t do them. I’ve had many parents, for instance, read a handout that summarizes these steps while I talk with their teen. I then invite the parent into the session, with the explicit instruction that we’re not going to solve the teen’s problem today. “Today,” I tell them, “you’re only going to listen.” Despite the parents having just read the handout and their assurance that they “already know how to do reflective listening,” within an average of 60 seconds the parent is defending, problem solving, or lecturing. Despite what we know, our anxiety, impatience, or pride get the better of us.
There are times when reflective listening shouldn’t be used. Don’t try to use reflective listening if you are being verbally or physically attacked. Don’t try to use reflective listening when you are being manipulated (see below), or when you are tired, too busy, or too scared to listen. Also, don’t allow someone to force you into solving a problem too quickly. Communicating with kids can be a great example of all three. For instance:
- When we are Too Tired or Busy: “Sorry, I’m really exhausted. I can tell something is wrong and I want to talk, though. Can we talk more after dinner or some other time?” [Warning: If you say something like this, it is your responsibility to approach the child again—don’t expect them to re-approach you.]
- When the person prematurely suggests a solution you can’t accept: For example, the teen says they are never going to school again. Parent: “I’m not sure what we are going to do yet. Right now, it’s more important that I listen. We can talk about ways to solve the problem later, if you want. You were saying you’re frustrated…” (The parent continues to reflect, summarize, and clarify until the teen seems more calm.) Think of this as momentarily “putting a pin” in the solution until everything is on the table.
- When the person says something that scares us: A parent is talking to a teen who recently said that someone was pressuring them to have sex. “Sorry, but knowing that your friend wants you to have sex is freaking me out. Just the parent in me I guess. I’ll try to listen more” or “… can we talk later?” Remember validating doesn’t mean agreeing, you can always go back later in “parent mode” and set limits regarding behavior. Don’t jump to conclusions. In this case, the teen may not want to have sex either, but may simply be feeling pressure from friends. You’ll never get at this, if you prematurely go into lecture or problem-solving mode.
Summary of Communication Skill #3: Reflective Listening
- Seek Validation: Try to understand the other person (and especially his fears) before trying to make the other person understand you.
- Use Reflective Verbal and Body Language: Reflect back (don’t parrot back) the underlying emotion behind the person’s words until you can see him visibly relax. Just make sure this is done genuinely; otherwise, the other person will feel manipulated and will resist. Also, be sure that your body language isn’t communicating defensiveness, criticism, contempt or stonewalling (or you should expect them in return).
- Summarizing and Going Deeper: Say things like, “Let me see if I got this right…” until the person agrees that you’ve understood him. Before problem solving, say “what else?” Make sure everything is on the table before you go chasing ghosts that don’t exist.
- Ask for Permission: Ask the other person if you can share your thoughts or if they need you to listen more first. If they’re interested in your opinion, ask what they’ve already tried. If they are not interested in your opinion (“No, I’m just venting!”), then go back to steps 1–3 and bite your tongue.
The three communication skills of saying no, making requests, and reflective listening all work together to grease the skids of any long-term relationship. But all three require practice. It may help to find others with whom you can role-play these skills. At the very least, start small. For instance, your first “yes…but” should be small, your first request should not be huge, and your first attempt at reflective listening shouldn’t be related to a topic that immediately causes you to become overwhelmed. Yet, with time and patience, these three skills can help us reset interpersonal expectations while keeping ourselves (and others) in bounds.
₁ This formula (X, Y, Z) was adapted from Lachman, V.D. (2009). Ethical Challenges in Health Care: Developing your moral compass. Springer Publishing Co, LLC: New York: NY. (p. 53).
₂ Just don’t use “bad timing” as an excuse to put off difficult conversations forever.
₃ The origin of this advice comes from a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
[The excerpt above came from the book, Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay), which is available exclusively on Amazon and found on the link below]