Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More
Message and Mantra for Transforming Reaction into Response
Increasingly, research is showing a direct correlation between employee productivity, business profitability, and the degree to which employees feel their employers are concerned about their personal and professional welfare. (See The 2010 AMA Handbook of Leadership.) For example, in the groundbreaking work, First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently (Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman) five of the twelve core elements (listed in their order of importance) “needed to attract, focus and keep the most talented employees” involve feedback, recognition and relationship building:
4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
Clearly, to both motivate and help people positively relate, interpersonal communication must reflect such critical factors as awareness, clarity, empathy, mutuality and timeliness. And in today’s hyper-speed digital (HSD) world, with info scan increasingly trumping attention span, people want simple and easy to apply, yet also savvy and strategic tools for bridging the communicational divide. In addition, honest, open and emotional connection, not just simply passing along information, are especially critical when parties are grappling with psychologically charged issues related to loss, change and uncertainty and/or conflict-laden cultural climates, e.g., employees who have gone through major reorg or RIF (Reduction in Force) and are wondering about if not waiting for the next “frightsizing” axe to fall.
With this in mind, as a writer and speaker, increasingly I provide an audience with concise psychological and communication concepts and tools – from aphorisms and acronyms to pithy poetic pearls – with a verbal (and sometimes visual-theatrical) design that, hopefully, make them easy to use and hard to forget. In an increasingly “do more with less,” hyperactive-distracted-overextended and over-cluttered mind-field, the ability to create “sententious” messages, messages “full of significance (and style) and expressed tersely” becomes a vital art form.
Two Communicational Tools Providing Perspective, Patience and Presence
For example, try these two communicational techniques to trump a knee-jerk “reaction” with a firm yet flexibly focused “response”:
1. Differentiate Blaming “You” vs. Responsible “I” Messages. “You’re always late,” “What’s your problem?” or “You made us look bad.” “You” messages not only assign blame or are judgmental and often global (e.g., “You never”), but they deny any responsibility on the part of the person making those “acc-you-sations.” (And naturally, a “chronic acc-you-ser” risks becoming a blameaholic!) Actually, even worse, these accusing “You”s often facilitate a transfusion of power: the “acc-you-ser” is increasingly becoming a puppet and is enabling the so-called antagonist to pull all the strings.
So, instead of “You’re making me mad” or “It’s your fault,” how about, “I don’t like what’s going on between us. Here’s what I don’t appreciate (or) this is what has me frustrated, concerned, uncomfortable, etc.” Then specifically, clearly and concisely state your “I”-message concern, e.g., “I prefer being asked or questioned about my reasons for doing XYZ rather than being confronted by assumptions. I need for us to talk about what’s going on!”
The shift from blaming or judging involves: a) asserting one’s own beliefs and perspective and, when necessary, firmly yet respectfully setting limits on the use of “You”-message fault-finding, b) setting boundaries on a party not respecting one’s physical or psychological space, c) evolving a perspective that is less focused on the other person’s “faults” (that is, an intrapersonal position) and more concerned with developing an interpersonal, “How are we together generating this situation and what can we do about it?” problem-solving approach, and d) acknowledging and taking responsibility for one’s actions and feelings by using “I”-messages, including stating likes and dislikes, and concerns and irritations.
Such an emotional-communicational shift means being authentically “self”-centered in contrast to being narcissistically ego-driven. Remember, a healthy “I”-communicator strives for real and respectful, responsible and responsive give and take between the parties. The narcissist invariably sees life through a “black or white” or a “right or wrong” lens, though these may even have rose-colored tinting. This personality inevitably needs to be in a “one-up” or “in control” position. And when the surprisingly sensitive narcissist feels his or her hurt is triggered by an alleged provocateur, then launching the old blamethrower is excusable, if not perfectly justified.
Quickly Bringing the Impact of “You” vs “I” to Life
Of course, a “blameholic” can consciously or not try to disguise weakness or immaturity with a Mr. Bluster mask and manner. Still, the difference between affirming “I” responses and offensively defensive “You” reactions is transparent. For example, imagine you are in an argument, perhaps over politics or whether a movie was worth seeing, and the other party suddenly tires of the logical back and forth. Consider the impact of each of these two-word declarations. Can you hear and feel the difference between “You’re wrong” (said with a judgmental tone) as compared to “I disagree” (declared with energy and conviction; or perhaps with a tad more tact, “I see it differently”)?
The consistent group facial expressions (and occasional gasps) when an audience member helps me act out this contrasting two-word scenario reveals the verbal and emotional impact. And quick analysis is illuminating: “You’re wrong” no longer is dealing with the specific issue but is actually dismissive of the other individual. In contrast, “I disagree” is predicated on the other’s position or points of argument, that is, the “I”-response is respectfully problem-focused while a “You”-reaction is often judgmental and personality-driven.
Finally, I believe a reactive “You” message tends to be one-sided, driven by “right or wrong” presumptions: “all head” (e.g., a coldly intellectual remark or a rejoinder dripping with scarcasm, e.g., “I’m just sure you could not have done anything else?”) or “all heart” (e.g., a wounded or weepy, “feel sorry for me,” outburst or lament). In contrast, a “responsive” “I”-message combines both “head and heart.” An “I” perspective typically attempts to perceive, understand and integrate multiple perspectives, that is, tries to construct a meaningful assessment of one’s own along with the other’s deeds, needs and intentions. And next is another memorable technique for achieving this integration.
2. Consider a “Reflective and Responsive” Mantra. The standard advice when you’ve “had it up to here” with someone and want to verbally explode or simply lash out is, of course, “Count to ten.” And while I see some merit, for me the cautionary counsel falls a bit short. In the heat of battle, if thrown off guard, I can just imagine myself methodically counting, “1-2-3-4,” then suddenly shifting gears, flying through 5 through 9, and at “10” blurting out, “You bozo!” (Even the Stress Doc is susceptible to that “You”-ruption every once in awhile; though the words of French novelist Andre Gide from his book, The Immoralist, often helps me silently, if not serenely, place people and positions in perspective: One must allow others to be right; it consoles them for not being anything else!)
Actually, to be less reactive, all you need is some of those well-developed multi-tasking skills to transform the old saw into a new aphorism. (As an aside, while the younger generation is particularly adept at multi-tasking, I suspect folks of any age who primarily hyper-speed through life may have some initial difficulty being personally reflective and psychosocially attentive.) Anyway…my poetic mantra: Count to ten and check within. That is, while you are counting (and centering yourself or trying to calm) down, ask one or more of these questions, which may also slow the countdown: “What am I feeling right now?” Am I attributing all my hurt or anger to “the other”; am I about to vent with a blaming “You”? Is it possible that some of my outrage reveals that my own “hot button” or emotional baggage issues have been pushed, triggered or stirred? Am I confronting my” Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure?”
Here’s an example of a self-inventory process, though, admittedly, one several years in the making. A heated exchange followed by quiet discussion enabled my partner to finally realize that my behavior was not equivalent to the immature actions of her ex; my actions were not really firing up her emotional cauldron. It was her own low boiling point, worn down by an erosive and divisive marriage, helping to trigger her impatience and anger with her present partner. (Though, of course, I certainly bring some of my own stuff to our intimate interaction.) The real “hot button” was her self-regret, shame and rage for not being strong enough to leave sooner a mostly dysfunctional “thirty year” relationship. And when this “separation/being on my own” fear constricted her options, there were some irreparable consequences for the children, the adults, and the family as a whole. However, having the courage to face your sadness and remorse softens the anger and rage that otherwise turns inward and/or gets acted out onto others. And this deeper awareness should help a dyad’s interaction be less defensive and reactive.
After completing this rapid internal audit, if still confused or frustrated while in the heat of battle, then build upon the mantra: Count to ten and check within…when in doubt, check without! Alas, my poetic addition may be a tad ambiguous. So let’s clarify some possible interpretations of check without:
a) check outside yourself; ask the other to clarify his or her message, e.g., “I’m not clear about what I’m hearing”;
b) check or set limits on a hostile communicator, e.g., “I don’t mind feedback, even critical feedback, but hostility and condescension are not acceptable! Let’s try again,”
c) check in with an open mind, that is, without bias, making every effort to consciously suspend your assumptions and prejudgments; e.g., “I must admit I’m not neutral in this matter, but I will attempt to listen with an open and objective mind.”
If issues remain troubling upon “checking within and without,” remember, you may momentarily retreat yet still be palpably real and paradoxically present. You may check out to check in: “I’m way angry right now, and don’t want to put my foot in my mouth (or your butt). I’m not running out; I’m taking a time out. I want to think about this, and I will get back to you first thing in the morning. From my perspective, we are not finished.” Clearly, strategic-reflective retreating is not giving up but stepping back in order to cool down, lick wounds, reevaluate, perhaps talk with a “stress buddy,” integrate head and heart, gain new perspective and strategy, and then responsibly reengage. (Of course, there are times, especially in the instance of child abuse, when an aggressor-predator-enabler has clearly earned “You”-focused confrontation, condemnation and, if warranted, incarceration. For example, see Penn State’s and Syracuse University’s potential criminal scandals and cover-ups.)
Hopefully, you now have two new, quick application tools for bridging the communication divide and for helping all parties…Practice Safe Stress!