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Say It, Don't Spray It!

Skills for speaking directly, respectfully

I often facilitate strategic work sessions to help people speak with candor, confidence and curiosity. It's all about having the skills to engage in dialogue with other people, especially when they see things differently. What I find is that people often leave the sessions feeling empowered and like the complete badasses they are. I love this! However, after a few days or so, the feeling wears off and people forget the important foundational building blocks of dialogue. So, what ends up happening is instead of speaking up respectfully, people end up saying exaclty "what they've always wanted to say" and instead of opening up the conversation, they shut it down.

In difficult conversations, we often forget that the other person we are engaging with is a human, not a sub-human "other" or someone trying to ruin our lives. As a result, instead of creating connections and understanding we subsequently continue damaging the relationship. We get so caught up in our stories about other people that we forget what's really most important: Human connection. There is nothing greater than this. Ultimately, we are all human beings doing the best we can with the tools we have. We must unlearn fearful coping mechanisms we have picked up in order to connect back to love and human connection.

Remember, what other people say and do is their choice, it has nothing to do with you (and vice versa). What we often perceive as someone attacking us is really a fearful coping mechanism in which they are in fight-or-flight trying to protect themselves. It's only when we remember this that we can respond from a place of compassion, set the boundaries we need, as well as be open to creating a safe space where we can all listen to understand.

Here's what I find most often gets in the way:

  1. We forget dialogue and fall into the trap of self-preservation

Our amygdala does a great job. Our environment and the constant barrage of fear inducing news also does a great job of putting our amygdalas on overdrive. Your amygdala is responsible for your fight-or-flight response. When you feel the physiological effects of fear, that's your amygdala doing its job. The problem is, because we are no longer running from lions, tigers, and bears, we have found other things to be fearful of. And these things are typically psychological, not physical. So, we get pulled into fight-or-flight when our lives are not actually in danger. Then, we end up being terrible self-monitors and damage relationships because we are focused on self-preservation and we forget that the person in front of us is a human too. Worse yet, we may feel resentful that we are in this situation and feeling uncomfortable (and we tend to blame the other person).

If we can kick ourselves out of fight-or-flight, we can do a better job of getting back into dialogue and speaking with candor, curiosity, and confidence. This is what people I work with (and at times, me too!) often forget. To do this we can ask ourselves a question to get out of our amygdala and into our prefrontal cortex. I like to call these tantrum questions because these are the types of logical questions I ask my children when they are in a tantrum. I use these types of questions to get them out of the emotion and back into their logical brains. Some of these questions might include: What's possible here? What are my choices? What am I really afraid of? Is my life in danger, thus is self-preservation actually necessary? These questions also help us become aware of our own fears so we can begin to step into fears and not avoid them.

2. We want to be right

The other trap I find people fall into is not having a firm grasp on the reason they are in a conversation to begin with. We often find that we want the other person to do something or say something different than what is actually happening. And just like that, we find ourselves stuck again. We will never control anyone but ourselves, but we can learn more about why other people do what they do. Here's the thing, if you are trying to have a dialogue with someone you disagree with and you find that you want anything other than trying to learn more or understand, you're smack dab in the middle of this trap. This is why curiosity is so fundamental to speaking up respectfully. It doesn't assume we are right and someone else is wrong.

Opening ourselves up to understanding other people does not mean that we agree or are endorsing their thoughts and beliefs. Many of us hold a belief that if we don't defend our point of view that we are somehow endorsing an opposing point of view. This simply isn't true. And, sometimes it looks like we are under attack, but in reality the person in front of us is just trying to protect themselves because we have fallen into the trap of trying to get someone else to see it/do it our way. We must remember this to help kick us out of our fear response and back into an open exploration. Instead of trying to change someone else ask yourself: What do I want? Then, match your words to support that. If the answer is, "I want to be right," recognize that, and commit to correct course. We all find ourselves there sometimes. This is what typically gets in the way of us connecting with one another.

This journey involves a lot of grace and compassion. We won't always "get it right." However, there are always opportunities to learn more. In conversations, if we can stop looking at what someone else is doing and start to be introspective, we may find that we could foster a lot more connection. If we collectively stop trying to defend our point of view and begin to look at how other people see things, not as right or wrong, but as a reflection of their experiences, we can say it, not spray it. ;-)