Henry Kissinger once said, “Protocol prevents the accidents of personality.” Calling someone a liar might get you punched out, but it won’t get you heard. Saying, “I remember that differently” will keep people listening. In a tough conversation, words really matter.
Mediators call this “reframing.”
In their book, Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson and others say two things are necessary for people to keep talking: Safety and respect. Name-calling is disrespectful and will shut down a conversation or turn it into a shouting match. Bullying, shouting, finger-pointing, and getting in the other person’s face threaten us and send us directly to fight, flight, or paralysis.
What if someone does that to you? Here are some things you can do:
1. Imagine: What’s the fear behind the anger? Ask yourself, “What would make me act like that?”
2. Reframe what the person just said, then answer that question.
3. Ask a question. “What part of the truth do you think I’m leaving out?”
4. Ask for clarification. [Overstressed Caregiver says to absent Sister, “You don’t give a damn about me!” Sister says: “Wow. Help me understand what you mean when you say I don’t care?”]
5. Make a personal revelation, followed by a request. “I can’t think clearly when someone yells at me. Could you lower your voice?”
6. Check out the other’s assumption, and clarify or reframe what you said. “When I asked what’s happening to Mom’s money, I didn’t mean I don’t trust you. I just want information so I can understand what she needs.”
7. If you lost your temper – or regret something in the past – apologize.
8. Ask for a time out. “Could we take a time out and try to calm down?”
Be prepared for surprises. Mindreading is notoriously wrong. It pays to enter a tough conversation with humility, because we don’t know what we don’t know. And asking the right open questions — (“What do you need?” “Help me understand why ___ is so important to you.” “What do you think would be a win-win for everyone?”) — will bring new information and new possibilities for a happy resolution.