Choose Your Words

By: Zeb Merson

When I was raising and educating my son, Dylan, I noticed a significant response pattern. Every time I told him not to do something, it was the very next thing he did. The first time I told Dylan not to touch the woodstove, he touched it and was genuinely shocked at the result. He had been burned before, knew the words I was using and the accompanying pain, but he was compelled to touch the stove when I said not to. I didn’t believe he was being defiant, (that came later) but I did think he was testing me. Because of his young age I chose to consider another possibility. As I questioned and listened closely to him I realized he had to picture himself doing what I didn’t want him to do in order to think of himself not doing it. I began to reframe my comments and demands. Instead of saying, “don’t touch the stove,” I would explain what was going on inside the stove, how it affected the stove itself and what happens if the stove is touched when there is fire inside. I would ask if he had any questions and then answer them. I would periodically ask him if the stove was hot and could I touch it. “Hot!” he would tell me shaking his head. Another method was to tell him how to do something, instead of how not to do it. Instead of, “Don’t eat the orange with the peel on it.” I would say, “This is how I eat an orange”, as I peeled it, gave him half and ate the other half. When I didn’t approach him in this way, he would often fail. I taught him how to hit a ball with a bat and he was a good at playing baseball. When he started having trouble hitting the ball a year later I started telling him what not to do when we practiced. By the end of the season he quit playing and refused to play again. To this day all he remembers is what he was taught not to do, which translated into him being taught he wasn’t able to do it.

I’ve pondered this for a couple of decades now. I have no science or sociology to cast the idea as true, but it continues to make sense relative to observation and experience. Very often it isn’t so much what is being said, but rather it’s the way I choose (or not) to say it. I can take the time to consider what I say before I say it, or allow it to roll out of my mouth without a second thought. I’ve discovered I have to ask myself what I’m looking to get out of the situation. One way of expressing myself can quickly justify an argument. Delivering the same message with moderately different words can get a similar message across while maintaining the peace. A prime example is criticism. When I was critical about my son’s batting style using language that told him what he was the wrong way, regardless of how kind and patient I thought I was being, his response was to retreat further and further into the belief that he was no good at hitting the ball with a bat. If I had chosen to encourage what was effective in his efforts and discuss what could be done to further improve his swing, there may well have been a very different outcome.

It’s really about perspective. I either communicate the glass is half full or that it’s half empty. The truth remains the same, there’s still half a glass of water, but the outcome may be radically different. How many circumstances can you come up with where you can see this applies in your life? How do your choices apply to your words before they come out of your mouth? Can you think of times a slight change in a choice of words could have altered the events between you and your spouse? One of your children? How about a conflict at work, or what you said out the car window during a blazing hot summer rush hour? We owe it to them and to ourselves to find the words that hold the greatest truth we can perceive in relation to who and what we want to be in this world. We all hold the key to effective communication, we just need to learn how we can remember to use it.

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5 Steps to Transform Conflict

By: Zeb Merson

Conflict is often caused by some form of communication breakdown-whether it’s with others or with ourselves. In that moment, for reasons true or false, we hold the other person or persons responsible for our experience of pain. These conflicts range from the mundane to catastrophic, from walking out on a dinner partner to starting a war. Do we ever have a communication breakdown without pain? Of course! There are many times we can disagree with another while communicating specifically and deliberately. The difference in those situations is we have the experience of being heard and understood by the other, even if we don’t agree. Additionally, they’ve had the opportunity to express themselves to us and they also feel heard and understood. There is disagreement, but there’s clarity; you each know where you stand in relation to the other. When this communication process breaks down we are cast back into uncertainty and a reactive pain response.

If we want to make use of our experience of conflict and transform it we have to develop our awareness of the shared communication process, both with others and with ourselves. Here are 5 steps that contribute a shared communication process for the transformation of conflict:

  1. Practice Self-Awareness
    Self-Awareness is the act of listening to ourselves. If we want to transform conflict we must be aware of the thoughts and processes of our own mind. Paying attention to our own thoughts and emotions supplies us with information. That information provides us the opportunity to make proactive choices and gain awareness of our true wants and needs. Know Thyself!
  2. Practice Other-Awareness
    Other-Awareness is the act of listening to another person. It’s very difficult to make an educated decision about what someone is saying if you’re not listening. Remember: hearing isn’t the same thing as listening. Listening demands your full attention. You know if you’re truly listening if you have no thoughts running through your mind while you’re listening. Deeply listening to another gives you the tools to fully comprehend what they think as opposed to what you think they think. Know the Other!
  3. Practice Acknowledgment
    Focusing on another to fully hear them is powerful. Acknowledging them for their contribution to the communication is an additional key to continuing an open dialogue. Whether you agree or disagree acknowledging the other lets them know you’re paying attention and appreciate their willingness to be truthful in the face of adversity. Let them know that you are receiving their message and hear what is true for them. Equally important the action invites them to show you the same curtesy. They’re taking the time to help you understand them-Thank them for it!
  4. Practice Clarification
    What one person says and the other hears aren’t always the same thing. Taking the time to clarify ensures you and the other person are on the same page. We all have filters and accepted meanings of words, but in many instances there are multiple interpretations. This alone can lead to substantial conflict and this one act of common interest can transform it. “This is what I heard, is it what you mean?” “Thank you for clarifying.”Ask for clarification!
  5. Practice Reframing
    The initial experience of a conflict is usually a negative one. The event or situation you experience in relation to the other party has left one or both of you with emotional pain. The opportunity in that moment is to recognize where and how you’re choosing the perspective that is triggering pain. It really does depend on the way you choose to look at it. An example of this is one we all know: Is the glass half empty or half full? Both observations inform the thinker and both are absolutely true. What perspective are you choosing in communication with another? Conflict can be transformed by reframing the context from which it originates. The conflict itself may remain, but through conscious reframing the capacity for the parties expressing themselves and being understood has expended to include other possibilities. With a shift in perspective, even a seemingly “harmful” conflict can be reframed with “worthy” meaning. Be Proactive!
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