A common sporting (and perhaps military!) adage suggests that the best form of attack is defence. This works very well if your primary goal is to attack. But for most of us, in most of our lives, we’re not on the sporting field or in the military. We’re working, playing, and living with other people, face-to-face. And in these situations, defence is not always the best way to respond if we are feeling under fire. Defence is the response that most of us are wired with, but in my opinion, far better results and far greater connections are achieved in other ways.
It does seem like the right thing to do – when we’re questioned or challenged on something, we should defend ourselves. It’s the only thing to do, right? Why would I let someone stand there and tell me I’ve done something wrong or that they don’t want to be with me or that I need to clean up a mess I didn’t make? Well, I think the answer is perfectly simple. Because you’re a grown up. Maturity, unfortunately, is not something that is earned with age, but rather with experience and control. The mature person is not blown around on the winds of their emotions day-to-day, jumping to conclusions about the intentions of others, and drawing their sword at the first sign of having to take responsibility. The mature person builds their life on a bed of factual rock, and as a mindfully aware, imperfect human being, can accept criticism and reflect and respond appropriately.
Unfortunately, I haven’t always been particularly mature. Some may question if I am even now! In my various roles in life I have been on the receiving end of some heavy criticism and part of some heavy conversations, and it’s only been relatively recently that I’ve realised that my verbal self defence was a completely misguided strategy. It seems such a long time ago now, but early in my marriage, I would respond to criticism by coming up with something (most likely something petty) to fire back. I had a colleague once who only knew how to respond to things he didn’t like with aggression – note that I use the past tense there, not because I’m no longer in the job, but because he was fired long before the end of my tenure. Given I’m no longer in my marriage and my former colleague is no longer in his job, it’s an easy leap to make, to say that defence in relationships of all kinds is unnecessary, and potentially destructive.
The question is, what do we do instead? Do we actually just sit there and take it? Isn’t that a sign of weakness? I can understand why you might think that, but I would suggest that it’s precisely the opposite. It takes real strength of character to be able to listen to something negative about yourself and reflect upon it. Take action. I have been in some pretty rough conversations over the past year or so, and I have learnt that it’s far more effective to listen, take a breath, and then respond, than it is to put up the bastions. I’m not saying I simply accept what is being said to me. That’s not at all what this is about. It’s about being better – and to be better we need to practice self awareness. To do that effectively, we have to have a curious mind.
I try to go through a bit of a process now, when I’m on the receiving end of some potentially difficult words. It’s not a perfect process, and it’s kind of just something that happened. But because of this process I feel better equipped to deal with problems when they arise in all of my relationships. The first and most important part is to listen fully. Wait until you’ve heard the other person out. Listen actively and don’t interrupt them.
It’s difficult, but it’s imperative that you aren’t formulating your response while you’re listening. This is a typical human tendency in conversations, but a big blocker to understanding. At this point, I fight the temptation to come back with something… that temptation is actually barely there in me now, after lots of practice! Rather than this, I try to ask clarifying questions, so that I can ensure that I fully understand the issue. Once I have understood the issue, I can make a decision on what action to take. And this will not be a decision based on any fleeting emotions of hurt or sadness, but rather based on the facts of the situation. But what has also happened in this situation goes far beyond the issue at hand. The other person feels heard and understood and cared for. I feel empowered by the information I have gained and recognise an opportunity to grow. And between us both, the connection has deepened.
This might sound like something that would only apply in a romantic relationship, but I believe it’s far more. I think it can be applied in families – just imagine a conversation between a parent and a teenager where both feel empowered and even more, where they feel more closely connected. Conflict becomes conversation, and conversation connects. Working together to understand one another is something we can all learn to do better, and something we can adapt to all of our relationships. And we all need to continually work at our relationships to ensure their success. So often these days we enter relationships with our own agendas, our own desires, and most of all, our own expectations. Harmony will be achieved when we drop those expectations and seek to understand, not when we seek to be right! Hmmmm… I think there’s another post in that…
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