NAVIGATING ANGER (part 2) Sally Campbell

Reflecting back

Sometimes negative, accusatory or angry words create such a reaction in us that we miss the speaker’s real meaning. Reflecting back is a way of trying to capture the essence of what you heard without parroting what the person said. It does not need to be preceded by: “So what I heard you saying is…”! This is filler that just annoys people. Simply try to capture the gist of what you heard. It doesn’t mean you agree with it.

Reflecting back (also called paraphrasing) can serve many purposes:

  • we show we are trying to understand
  • we let the speaker know what meaning has been transmitted to us
  • if there’s misunderstanding, we give the speaker the chance to clarify
  • if we’re on track, the speaker is often encouraged to say more
  • by reflecting back the essence only, we can clean up the content (take out the “sting”)
  • we overcome the temptation to react defensively
  • it keeps the discussion on track
  • it forces us to actually listen rather than prepare a response while appearing to listen.

A summary is like a longer version of reflecting back. When I taught mediation, I used to say to mediators-in-training: “If in doubt, summarize.” I still think it’s a useful practice and I wish I remembered to do so more often when I’m in a jam and becoming defensive. If you don’t know what to say next, just say so. This is a non-defensive response, way to go! Or try to summarize what’s been said so far. Don’t sneak your own viewpoint in there, just try to keep it clean. The goal is to try to understand where the other person is coming from, before you try to be understood. The great thing about a summary is that if you got it wrong, the person will correct you. If it’s incomplete, they’ll add more.

Showing Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to “feel with” another. It is a quality of understanding that is not pitying or patronizing, nor superior or condescending. It is communication that acknowledges what the other is experiencing without trying to “fix” the situation. Showing empathy is different from giving unsolicited advice, no matter how well-intended that advice, or from offering solutions.

Empathy validates the other person, shows respect and human warmth. Empathy builds connection. Empathy can be shown by tone of voice, volume and pacing, or by non-verbal communication such as a silent nod or genuine eye contact. It may also be shown by expressions which acknowledge the other person’s emotional experience, such as: “It sounds as if you are really struggling with this”, or “I’d be very upset about that too”.

We often think these thoughts. Less often do we express them, particularly in a culture of “doing and solving”. Some are afraid of opening the floodgates to a torrent of emotion they won’t be able to cope with, so they avoid acknowledging feeling altogether. Showing empathy defuses anger. Sometimes it is all the speaker needs to feel validated; now it may be possible to move

back to the subject at hand. A warning about empathic expression: it must be genuine. Fake expressions of empathy create a backlash and cause more harm than good. Communicating well is not about using skills on people; it’s about using skill with people.

Using Immediacy

Immediacy is the art of naming the emotional climate, or “talking about what is not being talked about”. Instead of reacting to anger with defensiveness, noticing that tension seems to be building (in you, in the room, between you both) will often lead to an exploration of the reasons for the tension. This simple statement alone can reduce the level of charge in the atmosphere. In naming the unspoken energy in the room, or how they are communicating, parties move off the content of their negotiation or dispute and examine the process. It may be that tension was building and an angry outburst occurred because one side felt the “real issues” were not being addressed. Or maybe the person doesn’t feel the other will truly listen. Like empathy, using immediacy diffuses tension. Now that person can be invited to say what’s going on for them, and the parties have an opportunity to look more deeply at their differences. Improving process releases pressure and empowers people to take charge of their disputing, rather than let anger run the show. Needless to say, timing is everything. We have to be clear-headed to communicate well in intense situations.

As I said last week, these ideas are offered because they have made a difference in real life for me, both in my work and in my personal life. With a father who was an amateur boxer in his youth, I certainly wasn’t raised to “move in to resistance” by reflecting back the feeling or content of what just irritated me! Hopefully these are basic and practical reminders for you as well. They are not words to memorize, but rather tools to expand our “conflict fluency”, a language we can keep learning our whole lives.

Next week: part 3

Author: TIG