It seems like everyone has an ‘Uncle Fred’ in their closet, the person that you have to see at a family holiday function that’s almost impossible to have a normal conversation with. Have you ever stopped to consider what is really at the root of this verbally challenged individual?
I have at least 1 Uncle Fred. And, I truly thought I did understand. Until, I recently read a great book where the subject of ‘silence or violence’ was described as a cornerstone for improved communication. Upon reading this, I understood, for the first time, all the crazy, over reactive, explosive interactions I have had with my father over the past 50 years.
In a nutshell, here’s what I learned. During this holiday season, when you find yourself in the middle of a difficult conversation (whether anticipated or by surprise) instead of getting caught up in it (which you kind of knew was coming) be mindful of 2 very common, and easy to detect, indicators that your communication has totally derailed. Silence or violence. Both of these conversational behaviors are a true indication that your conversation has become a monologue, one person talking the other not listening. It is the sign that they feel unsafe.
This was a true eye opener for me. A violent response means they feel threatened? What about me? I’m the one being shouted at? The truth is their reaction is a long standing, learned defense mechanism to feeling unsafe. And, although it takes time, and patience, you can work within any conversation to make someone feel safe, if you choose to.
So, how do we end this vicious verbal dance we’ve been doing for years? By following this proven practice:
- Watch for the first signs of impending silence or violence, in existing relationships, this is generally easy. We all know who we butt heads with on a regular basis. In other circumstances, just be mindful of the possibility.
- At first signs, (crossed arms, looking away, set jaw, change in breathing) mentally stop! Take a breath, releasing all tension and expectation from your mind and body. Recognize that unless you change something at this very critical moment the conversation is over. Let go of being right, heard, or respected for just a moment.
- Set about making the person feel comfortable and safe again. Remind them of how much you value their opinion, beliefs, desires or choices. Think of something you can say that validates who they are, what they want or believe. Acknowledge them, maybe even several different ways, followed by “and, (never but) I’d like to explain why I ...(feel the way I do), (need what I need) etc.”
- If you are met by silence or violence again... you’ve trampled on their safety, again. Go back to #2. Repeat this process until you can have the interaction you hope for.
Please don’t be mistaken into thinking that this is a 1-2-3 fix. If you’re lucky, it might be, especially with strangers or those you rarely engage in confrontational conversations. For those long standing, turbulent relationships this will take time, and a mindful practice. But, wouldn’t it be great if it paid off?
You can defuse those stressful holiday interactions by noticing when someone is withdrawing from a conversation either by silence or violence, accepting that you unknowingly made them feel unsafe, re-establishing the status quo, and moving on.
Happy Holidays. May your conversations be authentic, joyful, and calm!