One of the greatest things about working with clients is the phrases they come up with to help them develop new habits and techniques. A favorite of mine, an homage to Star Trek, was a mindset one client came up with to help him focus on several goals when facing difficult situations and conversations. It went: ‘Shields Up, Weapons Down, Communication Lines Open!’
Basically that would translate to something like:
- Shields Up — be cautious, don’t let your guard down, and feel safe against a perceived attack with no need to be “defensive”
- Weapons Down — stay calm, no “horses” (Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling, per John Gottman’s Four Horsemen), no need to feel like you have
to “fight back”
- Communication Lines Open — be ready to listen carefully, really paying attention to what the other person is saying, and respond thoughtfully
It’s much easier to say the phase than it would be to relay the underlying meanings. Your brain already knows what all this means—unless of course you have spent the last 60-plus years on the planet “No-television-us“! In a way it’s even more spectacular than knowing “exactly” what it means. When you set up a situation with this Star Trek reference in mind, the neuro-pathways in your brain, where all those characters and species live, light up. You tap into an amazing library of techniques and approaches to employ. You have models in front of you for diplomacy and “calmness under fire“.
Which leads me to digress, ever so slightly, to that favorite question to ask your friends. “Who’s your favorite Star Trek Captain?” Again, one of those places where the one bit of information tells you more about the person than you might think. There is a big difference in the way Kirk handled a crisis and the way Picard did—pretty telling stuff! Kirk was a ‘cowboy’ rushing in with guns blaring. It made for good drama, but is “drama” what we want in our exchanges with others? Picard was thoughtful and diplomatic, which meant less fist-fighting and phaser fire, but usually far calmer interactions with whoever was on the other side.
What do you really want from a challenging interaction? Create a list of how you want a troublesome conversation to go. No, really, make a list right now. I’ll wait…
Okay, list made? Now what items on your list are out of your control? You know those ones like:
- They admit they are wrong
- They agree with me
- It is 100% my way
- They believe what I believe
I’m sure you have more, and the main point is that trying to get others to actually think and feel the way you do is like that old saw: “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and irritates the pig.” What you can strive for is improved communication and an understanding by both sides.
Which leads to another sticking point in difficult conversations. Many of us feel like we have to tell everyone everything, all our feelings, all our reasons. Frankly my sense is that most of this comes from being in families with sticky boundaries. Not only do we not have to tell all that, it’s frequently better not to. I like to think of this as the “need to know” principle.
- Is it really relevant to the discussion? (I.e., will sharing it really help to resolve the problem?)
- Is it more personal than you’d really like to share?
- Would it create more problems than it would fix to share that bit of information?
The next time you have a complaining customer—or get into a political discussion with Uncle Fred—give these ideas a try, and see how it’s different when you are prepared and ready to “Make it so!”
Shell Tain, The Untangler
If you’d test out a couple of new techniques to help you boldly go in the direction of easier conversations, give me a call at 503-258-1630 or check out my website at www.sensiblecoaching.com.