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Exercise 1: Paying attention to content

Purpose: practice being aware of what people actually say to you– prevents miscommunications.

Step 1. Watch an educational video on YouTube, or if you prefer, listen to a podcast. Pick one on a topic that interests you, hopefully no more than 15-30 minutes in length. The subject doesn’t much matter. As you listen, consciously seek to identify the main points. When it’s over, make an outline of those points.

Step 2: Wait a day. Then listen to the same talk again, this time taking notes as you go, rather than waiting until it’s all over. Compare those notes with the previous day’s. Did you get all the important points the first time? Or did you identify more of importance on the repeat go-round?

Now, summarize, in your own words, the principal message(s) of the talk. Keep it to one or two sentences. Are there any questions you would have liked to ask the speaker? Did you at any point feel like arguing with the speaker? About what, specifically?

Much confusion and even conflict is based on simple miscommunication: what one party heard is not actually what the other party meant. That happens when we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or prepping in our heads for how we’ll respond when it’s our turn. Both distract us and therefore increase the risk of misunderstanding.

Exercise 2: Learn to listen for your triggers

Purpose: to become aware of certain words, phrases, or subjects that trigger in us a negative emotional response.

  1. Think of a difficult past relationship, one where you often found yourself frustrated, angry, worried, anxious, fearful, sad, discouraged, guilty or ashamed– in other words, a relationship full of negative feelings. Rate the intensity of your negative feelings to things this other person said that you found mildly upsetting (example: “I did feel it was unfair when she said that”), moderately upsetting “(now that really ticked me off”), and finally, very upsetting (“I have never felt so hurt” or “that just drove me nuts”, etc.)
  2. What was it about the remarks you rated as most upsetting (the 3’s) that evoked those emotions? What were your strong feelings at the time? Do they arise even now as you remember it?

This is an exercise in “button-pushing”. If during the course of a difficult discussion, the conversation happens to touch on any of those areas — which it often does — expect to react emotionally. You might not even understand why you’re reacting that way. And in truth, it may be based on the past as much or more than the present.

By increasing our awareness, we can learn to modulate those same responses– reduce their intensity so they don’t interfere with our ability to communicate.

This post belongs to Tips for Difficult Discussions