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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/22/11

Speaking While Upset: Moving from Destructive to Constructive in 6 Simple Steps

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Elaine Shpungin
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There are lots of ways to calm down, but most won't help you feel understood.
There are lots of ways to calm down, but most won't help you feel understood.
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Let's assume that you already know that trying to express your feelings and thoughts while you are physically and psychologically aroused (angry, exasperated, deeply disappointed) is unlikely to help you communicate productively (unless you count number of insults or volume level as part of your productivity quotient).

Let's also assume that like me, you have adopted a number of "calming down" techniques (time out from the other person, breathing, going for a walk, standing on your head, eating chocolate, ok - I digress) before trying to talk with the person about what happened (or simply re-engaging with them at all).

Perhaps you have then discovered, like I have, that these calming down strategies work fairly well while the two of you are apart, but don't do much good when you actually try to communicate about the issue (whether in person or over email).

This is because most calming down techniques do not fundamentally change the thoughts and judgments you are holding about the person or their behavior.

Thus, when you communicate with the person, those negative thoughts and judgments ("She's careless and incompetent" "That was so inconsiderate and disrespectful!") get woven into your tone and word choices. And - sensing these barbed messages within your communication, the person will have a much harder time focusing on what you are saying - or hearing you the way you'd like to be heard.

So, what is one to do? Marshall Rosenberg, the father of Non Violent Communication (NVC), urges us to engage in "empathy before education."

The most effective and efficient way I know of doing this on my own is to fill out an Empathy Worksheet.

There are different variations of these in the NVC community; this one is a slight modification of one used by Newt Bailey, effective communication coach and conflict resolution trainer, facilitator and mediator - as well as one of the stars of the Conflict Hotline , a show on conflict resolution hosted by BayNVC's non violence guru Miki Kashtan.

What I love about my Empathy Worksheet:

  • Quick (10 - 20 min depending on how deep you want to go)
  • Easy (my 8 yr. old does it on his own)
  • Empowering (moves me past self-pity, anger, judgments and criticisms to what really matters to me)
  • Effective (allows me to communicate in a way that greatly increases my chances of being heard and to hear the other person)

So, what's involved?

1: Stop, Drop and Write!

STOP what you are doing and take 10 minutes to fill out the Worksheet!

BEFORE YOU PRESS SEND. Don't send that angry email you just composed! Go do the Worksheet and then edit the email before sending it out.

BEFORE YOU ESCALATE. If you are in an escalating argument, STOP. Tell the other person this is not going anywhere productive and that you'd like to take some time out and continue in 30 minutes. Go do the Worksheet and then reboot the conversation using what you discovered.

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Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is a student and practitioner of Non Violent Communication (NVC) and Restorative Circles (RC).

She is currently exploring restorative and non-violent approaches to conflict and ways to meaningfully share power in (more...)
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