I swear sometimes. The major offenders (though usually not the hyphenated kind). I hate that I do it, because I always feel childish afterward. But I know why. Volume. Almost 100% of the time.
Let me explain. When I’m angry or frustrated or overwhelmed, I want people to know about it. I want their sympathy or their empathy or at least their acknowledgment. So, if I don’t think they are getting it, I’ll swear. It gets attention. It adds volume. But then I fell childish, because I know I’m throwing a grown-up tantrum.
I think many of us do the same thing but in different ways. Some people slam things to increase their volume. Some withhold love. Some withhold sex. Some use body language or gestures to increase their volume. Some use violence. Some use silence. Some increase their volume to increase their volume.
We increase our volume, because we don’t feel like the people around us are getting it. We don’t feel like they understand how we are feeling. We feel that they don’t know what we’re going through.
I learned something in a conflict management class years ago that speaks to this. When people are emotional about something, they want us to understand how frustrated or how angry or how sad or how lonely they are. Unfortunately, we often respond in the wrong way. The most common responses:
- We’re not listening, because we are paying attention to something else or to ourselves.
- We try to fix the problem while they are emotional.
- We tell them why they shouldn’t be feeling what they are feeling.
- We shut down in response to their emotional outburst or because we’ve been down this path so many times before that we no longer have patience for it.
- We try to cheer them up with promises of a better tomorrow.
- We get emotional ourselves – not with empathy – in reaction to their emotion.
None of these responses are helpful, and they are all almost guaranteed to get an increase in volume. They show to the other person that we’re not listening, or they minimize the validity of the emotion. This is incredibly frustrating for the person experiencing the emotions. What they want before anything else, before fixing their problem or before thinking logically, is to be heard.
And I mean to be heard at a deep level. Sure, you may have responded to the content of their message, but did you respond to the meaning behind it? You can’t hear the meaning unless you are listening at the deepest level – listening with your whole mind and your whole body – giving them your full attention.
To listen at the level of meaning requires that you hear what they don’t say. It comes through their tone of voice, their facial expressions, their posture, their body language, their inflection, their eye contact or lack of it… It’s an art and a skill, and sometimes it takes really knowing the person to get it right, but trying to listen for meaning is how you get to know them.
So, here’s what I learned in that course.
#1 Emotions before facts. Always. Emotional people don’t want to talk to Dr. Spock. They want to be understood. They may be making no sense whatsoever; they may be saying things that are dramatically exaggerated. Doesn’t matter. Respond to their emotions first. That earns you the right to talk facts with them.
When I used to respond to my wife’s anger with logic, it always got me into trouble. She would increase her volume, because she didn’t think she was being heard. I would respond with logic, she would increase her volume. And so it went until I gave up and went to bed. As a result, we have some legendary fight moments that we entertain our friends with at parties.
Of course, I was right in these arguments (occasionally), but that didn’t matter in the emotional moment. What mattered was that she wasn’t being heard and understood. Deal with emotions first, then facts.
#2 Match emotion to concern. Pretend that you can gauge a person’s emotions on a scale of one to ten. If a person is at a Level 8: Anger, your best response is a Level 8: Concern. You accomplish that by listening at the level of meaning and responding with a reflecting statement.
A reflecting statement is a mirror. It acts just like your bathroom mirror acts toward you in the morning (thank goodness). It doesn’t evaluate. It doesn’t judge. It reflects. It sounds like this:
- “You’re frustrated that your boss keeps giving the best assignments to your peers.”
- “It sounds like you’re feeling very lonely at your new school.”
- “I can tell this is really upsetting you.”
- “You’re feeling like giving up on your goal.”
- “You don’t feel like anyone understands what you are going through.”
You don’t have to be 100% accurate in your reflection. If you’re not, they will tell you. Usually, they appreciate the effort. The lines of communication stay open, and you can try again with another reflecting statement. Eventually, you’ll hit your target.
What you do have to do is use the right tone of voice and body language. Use any of the statements above with a sarcastic or apathetic tone of voice, and you’ll send the person into orbit. You’ve got to show through your non-verbal communication that you are interested and that your verbal communication is sincere.
When you match emotion with concern, the person feels heard. If you match a Level 8: Anger with a Level 8: Concern, they will reduce the volume. You understand them. There’s no reason to be so loud anymore. They might not come down to Level 1: Anger, but keep matching emotion to concern, and you’ll get there. Once they are at Level 1, they will be ready to talk about facts. (They may even admit that they were exaggerating before. But I’m not guaranteeing miracles.)
This approach is simple, but it’s definitely not easy. Be sincere about it and keep trying. Eventually, you’ll learn to read the other person accurately. Your relationship will get stronger, and you’ll help them improve their volume control.