Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Emotionally Loaded Interactions: Resisting Verbal Combat

You’re at work in a meeting and your ground is being shaken. You’ve just been verbally assaulted. Both you and your assailant have reputations tarnished by what’s been said. The room is silent and there are people close to tears, notwithstanding yourself.

So, what do you feel? A shakiness to your voice, a sort of threatened presence, negative attention honed in you… and more. As the perspiration drips from your armpits and the temperature under your collar is raised, you sense that you’re out of control of this situation, and ironically, it’s the situation you most require control over!

This is an extreme example, one that not often occurs, but we all recognise the potential.

The trouble is these situations don’t just occur in the workplace; they occur at home and in all sorts of other situations. So, what gives? And what can we do about ‘next time’?

We need to first recognise the ‘trio of powerful [negative] emotions’ at play--fear, anger, and embarrassment--and recognise at first our own vulnerabilities in the mix.

A new book called Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them seeks to set the record straight, empowering readers. It says,

“If we put in place approaches that don’t depend on battle ploys, don’t tie us up emotionally, and don’t break down over misconceptions, we can change the conversations themselves.”[1]
Genuine forms of a tripartite respect are the key. Self-respect, respect for the other person, and respect for the conversation itself must all be there and held in equal tension.

Firstly, those with self-respect have a sort of ‘moral nerve.’[2] They accept responsibility for their whole life universally i.e. in all life situations. Self-respect regulates us evenly between the emotional poles and it gives us distance from the emotion of the moment so we have more options in decision making.

Secondly, and probably hardest to achieve in practical terms, is respect for the other party. It is essentially about having the awareness and courage to ask about their interests and needs, and not guessing, fighting or avoiding these needs.[3]

Finally, we must respect the total situation we find ourselves in. Now, this is where the psychology gets interesting. We picture instead of a battlefield, a parkour obstacle course--one that must be and can be negotiated.

The sport of parkour: “A sport or athletic activity in which the participant seeks to move quickly and fluidly through an area, often an urban locale, by surmounting obstacles such as walls and railings and leaping across open spaces, as in a stairwell or between buildings.”[4]

As we move through the ‘conversational landscape’ we must be prepared to bridge the tension between feeling in total control (too far in our own balance) and feeling out of control (too far out of balance), reaching a position where both parties are equally challenged to perform, and neither draws comfort from the advantage they might have over the other.[5] Certainly, in many situations this is difficult to achieve, particularly in workplace supervisor/subordinate conversations, and especially in the home.

It bears well for the supervisor (or the parent or spouse) to intentionally create the environment where potentially emotionally-loaded conversations are dealt with constructively perhaps through a hiatus of reflection toward a situation of equity and fairness. We must defuse the value of the threat; in all parties concerned.

As we negotiate the terrain of conversation, moving and anticipating hazards as we go, we problem-solve on the hop, always prepared for the worst, and in so doing, prepared to implement the tripartite respect model for the protection of us, the other person, and most of all the conversation itself!

“Self-respect and respect form a synergistic loop. Together they determine our reputation and our relationships.”[6]

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
[1] Holly Weeks, Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2008), p. 40.
[2] Weeks, Ibid, pp. 40-46.
[3] Weeks, Ibid, p. 60.
[4] “parkour.” Dictionary.com. Retrieved 8 June 2009. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/parkour
[5] Weeks, Op Cit, p. 57.
[6] Weeks, Ibid, p. 60.

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