How many times have you been in a situation with someone you know pretty well, maybe your spouse or your best friend, when you just couldn’t get through to them? For some reason beyond your understanding they just refuse to listen to what you are saying. They argue, they say irrational things, they confound you with statements unrelated to what you are trying to say, they just don’t seem to hear what it is you are trying to get across.
Why is that?
Okay, we have all heard of the “Fight or Flight Syndrome”. That’s’ when your brain takes over and you feel you have to either fight or run away from the situation. But what does this mean to us on a personal level? What it means is our brains are engaged in a battle for our survival and it is sending us messages intent on helping us survive whatever the threat appears to be. That threat could be as simple as avoiding embarrassment, it could be defending against something that you said that the other person perceived as an attack. Whatever the threat, the other person is reacting to you as though you are a threat. They see you as “the bad guy” and themselves as “the victim”.
Now, if you asked them, they would deny this. They are not lying to you, they are not aware that “the bad guy” and “the victim” roles are unconsciously engrained into their way of perceiving the world. Actually, it’s a part of all of our unconscious minds. We can’t help it it’s automatic.
Picture this: A husband, let’s call him Jim, is trying to help his wife who is swamped with Christmas preparations. She told him that she has to set up the tables for their holiday dinner and gave him a vague notion of how she wanted it done. Without asking for more details, Jim thinks he can help his wife; lets call her Susan, by setting up the tables for her. He hurries around hastily setting up the tables before she comes back from Christmas shopping, hoping to surprise her. Well, boy, was she surprised. Susan says, “What is this?”
Jim proudly says, “I set the tables up for you.” Suddenly, without warning, Susan explodes on him, telling him this is not at all what she wanted, and why did he think this is how she wanted it? And why didn’t he let her do it? Jim was dumbfounded. He starts yelling back at her how he was just trying to help, and didn’t she want his help? Susan is aghast that he can’t see this is not what she wanted. She starts telling him he was just trying to horn in on her show, that this holiday dinner is important to her because her new son-in-law’s family is going to be there and she had it all planned out. Jim insists that he was trying to help her and she is just being petty.
What happened here? Both people were trying to accomplish the same goal, but they got seriously derailed. Why? It’s because their brains kicked into survival mode. The whole argument escalated because neither of them realized how suddenly they had become each other’s enemy. Each saw the other as “the bad guy” and themselves as “the victim”. Whatever understanding they may have had of each other’s stress was out the window and they were each solely focused on surviving the current threat.
So what is the alternative? The alternative is to choose to react with compassion. Now, that sounds like a big task when you are feeling threatened, and in fact, it is. But the key to doing it is really quite simple.
The key to reacting with compassion is to begin with taking ownership of your part in the situation. How do you take ownership when you have no idea what triggered the other person’s reaction?
You start by taking a breath. Breathing may seem simple, but it’s not. Our bodies react to threat by going into hyper-alert. In the hyper-alert state our breathing can stop. We can stop this automatic reactive response by consciously choosing to take some breaths.
Next, remember who is talking to you. Remind yourself of the good things you know about this person. Then remain open and curious about your own role in the situation. You can say, “You seem angry, is there something I said or did that upset you?” Find your own words to convey that you are aware of something you did having triggered an emotion in this person. Once you have opened your own heart to listening to their pain, you are in a better place to be heard.
Reigning in our own “Fight or Flight” reactivity helps us hear and be heard. When we can calm those automatic reactions in ourselves we are less likely to respond to others in threatening ways. By calming our own reactions, taking ownership of our part in the situation and offering empathy to the other person, we are not longer a threat to the other person. By removing the threat, the other person can then let down their protective reactivity and listen to what we have to say to them.
So the next time you find yourself thinking, “Why won’t they listen to me?” stop and breathe. Then find out what upset them. Give them some empathy, and say your piece. Their ears will be open, check it out for yourself.