Monday, April 26, 2010

“That’s not what I said!”

Question: My wife and I get into these insane fights where she totally makes stuff up that I said, then gets upset because I don’t agree with her memory of things. How do you deal with it when someone just makes stuff up?

Answer: This sounds pretty frustrating for you, to find you have such a different recollection of events to your wife. And, of course, if I spoke to your wife she would insist that it is your memory that’s at fault, not hers. Or she might say you’re changing the facts to support your position, and you might say the same of her.

Let’s consider this. Your wife says you agree to spend this Thursday evening with her, and you say you never made any such agreement. You’re convinced she’s “wrong” and she’s convinced she’s “right.” Why does it matter to you that she agrees with your version of reality? If she suddenly starts saying sincerely “You know, you’re right, I remembered incorrectly,” what would that give you that’s valuable to you?

If you say “Now she’s being honest” then that might contribute to your level of trust in her. It might also give you a sense of trust in your own memory, or a sense of actually “living on the same planet” as your wife — having the same shared perceptions and recollections of reality.
Similarly, if her version is so different to yours, you might be very exasperated by the quality of communication you experience, and the level of ease the two of you have in organizing your lives together harmoniously.

Whatever your answers are to my question, I would try conveying that to your wife, rather than trying to convince her that she’s wrong. Include how you feel with things as they currently are, and do your best to simply describe your experience and desires without any blame, criticism, or demands (since I’m guessing you’ve already tried all those with limited success).

For example:

You: “I’m so exasperated right now that you remember me saying something that I’m totally sure I did not say. We seem to remember things differently way more often than I’d like, and I’d love us to somehow change this. How do you feel hearing me say this?”

Your wife: “Don’t blame me, you’re the one who’s forgetting things all the time and changing your plans without telling me.”

You: “I have blamed you in the past, so I can see why you’d hear what I said that way. Right now I’m trying to do something different….”

Your wife: “It’s just so annoying that you don’t remember things.”

You: “I’m annoyed too, because I really want us to communicate in a way where we end up on the same page about events, plans and decisions. Can we talk about what we can do differently to make it less likely that this happens again?”

It may take a while to get there, but if you give up on trying to prove your wife wrong, I think she’ll notice soon enough, and join you in figuring out what can be changed. Someone has to take the lead, so don’t be surprised if your wife continues with the “Who’s right/who’s wrong” thinking for a while if that’s how you’ve communicated up until now.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

They always say the "right thing"!

Question: I've been around some people who seem to always know what to say. They respond with some mixture of wisdom, compassion, courage, strength, and assertiveness - and seem to intuitively know what mixture of these qualities is needed. Are people just naturally that way...or what's the trick?

My answer: I've had the experience of simply "riding" my intuition when communicating, and being very satisfied with the result. It's not totally reliable though, so I see the communication work I do as providing myself and others with "training wheels" to help with communication when the intuition dries up, or when what I'm intuitively drawn to say seems to be making things worse. Training wheels are also known as "stabilizers" in the UK - and what I'm describing here can certainly contribute to my sense of stability, even when navigating through difficult conversations.

So, riding with the "training wheels" means I limit myself to thinking, speaking, and asking about just four areas of focus.

* What am I hearing/seeing right now? What did the other person actually just say or do - can I get clear on what I'm actually observing separate from my thoughts and judgments about what's happening?
* What's the impact on me of what I'm hearing/seeing? How am I feeling?
* What do I want, fundamentally, at this moment, or in this conversation?
* What am I moved to do or say? What do I want to ask the other person to do, or to tell me?

Focusing moment by moment on these four areas of inquiry usually helps me to communicate. And if I want to take this a step further towards really connecting with the other person and moving towards mutually satisfying communication - I will ask myself the same four questions about them too, repeatedly, as the conversation proceeds. What are they observing? What's the impact on them? What do they fundamentally want? What would they like to hear from me or ask of me? You'll see these basic questions at play throughout this blog.