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June 4, 2014

From Conflict to Resolution: Improving Communication Skills on the Battlefield of Life.

Soran Sorin

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this whole re-framing deal, and how critical it is to our level of happiness.

Re-framing is more than seeing the glass half full or looking at life through rose-colored glasses. That’s an oversimplification.

It is the work of an optimist, to be sure, but it is still work.

Re-framing requires a willingness to see and receive good, honest perspective and an active engagement in a shift in explanatory style and vocabulary.

When we choose to stop blaming others for our problems, acknowledge our own contributions for the situation at hand and actively engage in doing something about it, real change can happen.

Our current reality is dependent partially (or arguably, heavily) upon our attitude. Our attitude is a result of the conscious decisions we make all day every day.

We choose our responses.

We choose our reactions.

We choose the degree to which we allow external forces to impact us and the words with which we articulate that impact.

Our explanatory style assists in maintaining our own positive attitude as well as in creating and sustaining positive interactions and relationships with others. The more negative and emotionally loaded our dialogue is, the more intense and less satisfied we are likely to be in any situation.

To further explore this concept, I’ve broken it down into two parts—Explanatory Style and Re-framing.

Explanatory Style: Essential Don’ts and Dos When Communicating with Others

1. Don’t give ambiguous emotionally charged statements.

Examples: “You need to clean your room” or “I need you to clean your room.”

Think about it: do you really need them to clean their room? Can you not survive a minute longer if they don’t?

Negative. You need food, water and shelter. The rest are wants.

When someone tells us that we need to do something, does that make us want to do it? In my experience (on both sides of this camp), we may as well say “fighters, draw your swords,” because we’ve essentially initiated a battle sequence.

Using words like “need,” “have to,” “should,” etc. immediately raise our affective filters; in other words, we hear those words and an entire slew of negative associations and connotations arrive in our heads alongside of them.

The result of this is that we might question, bargain, negotiate and otherwise try to find reasons why that statement is either: a) stupid, b) wrong, c) inapplicable, or d) all of the above.

Bottom line: people don’t like to be told what to do. Guidelines and boundaries are different than regimented task management.

The more we speak in that language the more emphasis we place on extrinsic (as opposed to intrinsic) motivation.

2. Don’t give an “if-then” consequence or reward

Example: “If you don’t clean your room then you can’t go anywhere else today.”

This quickly escalates to “for the rest of the day, ever, for the rest of your life. Okay fine, until I give in after an hour and help you do it. But then you can never leave your room again.”

Honestly, the kids stopped caring about the vague consequence about three minutes ago.

Consistently creating caveats for your activity based upon the completion (or lack thereof) of a task only encourages reward-based behavior. Additionally, constantly throwing out threats just offers additional chances for misbehavior.

For example, if I keep saying to my kids “If you do that one more time…” I basically just gave them permission to do it again.

And they probably will do it again. 99% of the time, the  consequence isn’t enough to prevent the behavior; in their cost-to-benefit analysis, the benefit (doing the action again and  pissing mom off) totally wins, especially for negative attention seeking behavior.

If the goal of the behavior is to get your attention and make you upset, then as soon as you respond to it, they win and you lose.

Carrots and sticks are not going to help motivate anyone here.

3. Don’t over-explain

Example: “I’m know I’m late, again. I ran out of coffee this morning so I had to run to the coffee shop to get more, and then my car was out of gas so I stopped to get some but then the kids started fighting in the backseat and one of them spilled their hot chocolate all over so we ran home to change clothes and then while I was waiting I saw a post from my ex-boyfriend on Facebook (it just popped up on my phone, I swear!) and it was a picture of him and his new girlfriend and it sent me into a total meltdown and so I had to take a breather to recoup before the kids saw me crying (again), and then as soon as we finally got to the parking lot I realized the other one forgot their lunch and then and so we had to run home again to get it and…”

You know what that is? It’s your problem. It’s just a bunch of excuses.

What’s the real reason you are late? You didn’t prepare in advance like you should have. Your priorities might have gotten out of line and in not giving yourself enough room for error in your morning (when the unexpected happened) you weren’t able to respond in an efficient manner.

Ditto for responding to requests from others.

Sometimes, a person just wants to hear a simple “yes” or “no,” not the reasons why, your thought process or how it is that you came to that decision. Quite frankly, most of the time, it’s really none of their business.

Guess what else? No one really benefits from you explaining all of that (other than perhaps giving them a good laugh)—not even you!

Your lack of planning = your problem.

Your troubles? Also your problem.

Everybody everywhere is struggling with something. You are not the only one who had a shitty morning.

4. Don’t apologize (unless it’s genuinely warranted)  

Example: “I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to answer your call right away and then I misunderstood your text. I’ll make it up to you later, okay?”

Again, an apology engages our emotional center and requests empathy, sympathy or forgiveness. It asks permission, which suggests a power struggle and can invite conflict.

Do you really need to be sorry you couldn’t answer the call? You just weren’t available to at that time, it’s as simple as that.

Ditto with the misinterpretation. Are you sorry you misunderstood, or did your misunderstanding create a lack of clarity on your part? Adding “okay” at the end of the sentence is asking the other person’s permission. Are you, or aren’t you? If you are, why make it sound like a question requiring that person’s consent?

Talk less. Act more.

5. Do offer positive, brief and clear directions.

Example: “Please put away your legos.”

This breaks down the steps into achievable tasks. It is clear, specific and completely devoid of emotion.

We avoid the battle by not engaging in a power struggle in the first place.

Be polite, say what they are to do (not what you would like them to do, what you “need” them to do or would “prefer” they do). Say what the task is, in a direct and cheery manner. Channel your inner June Cleaver as desired (apron optional).

6. Do offer a reward, if applicable and useful to the situation

Example: “Now that your room is all clean we can do something fun together.”

A statement like this clarifies the antecedent to the fun behavior, validates that the task was completed and offers feedback on performance.

It is also totally empty of emotion, positive or negative.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink states that when completing algorithmic, mechanical tasks, offering rewards that are non-contingent, unexpected and intangible, we create incentives that work (so long as we don’t overuse them to the point that they morph into a “if-then” setup).

Likewise, when offering consequences, avoid the battle.

Let’s say you asked the kids to stop doing something and they did it again (real shocker here, major stretch of the imagination). Just give the consequence: “I asked you to stop and you did it again. Please______ (fill in the blank with whatever logical consequence applies here).”

Don’t live in a life of “if-then” rule governed behavior.

Give immediate feedback, be clear and be consistent. Take the emotion out of the reward and the consequence.

This is not a debate; they don’t get another chance or one more try.

Do this consistently and I promise you’ll see a change in behavior.

Sidenote: Some kids (and uh, adults) require experiencing this lesson more frequently than others but eventually they’ll get it. Stay strong my friends.

7. Do be brief, positive and honest.

Example: “I’m late. What would you like me to do as a result of my tardiness?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

Spending time rationalizing your actions and choices only serves to make people question your motivation, intentions and behavior in general.

It’s not personal. Nothing that others do is because of you. Be confident enough in yourself to be cool with who you are and what you do, regardless of what others think.

Be impeccable with your word. Keep your business your business.

The more unnecessary information we provide, the more we subject ourselves to managing additional reaction control as others respond to our information.

Stop fueling the fire by adding unnecessary tinder. The more we share our problems and frustrations, the more attention we give them and the more they build and begin to affect those around us.

Your relationships are between you and that other person, not between you and all of your mutual friends. Keep your game tight. Gossiping is gossiping.

End of story.

8. Do say what you mean and mean what you say

Example: “I was unable to answer your call at that time, and texting didn’t help us communicate well, my bad. I will call you when we are both available to chat.”

We must acknowledge our role in the situation, be convicted in and of our actions and again, keep it simple.

If  we act with integrity, veracity and positive intention, there is nothing to hide nor little for which to seek permission.

When we are of good character and can be depended on to follow-through, people will view us with respect and show understanding when things come up. When we frequently let them down, are always apologizing and often seeking permission of others, we come off as weak, ungrounded, disorganized and untrustworthy.

Love elephant and want to go steady?

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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Soran Sorin / Pixoto

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