Have you been avoiding bringing a hot-button topic up with your friend, co-worker or spouse? Here are three surprisingly simple communication skills that turn arguments into real understanding.
RUN YOUR HANDS UNDER COLD WATER
When I wash dishes, I have a problem, I like to use really hot water but I don’t like to wear rubber gloves because my hands sweat. So that is a problem – hot water and bare hands aren’t a good combination. Thankfully, I found a solution. I run my hands under cold water and get them really cold and then I can put my hands in really hot water for enough time to do about one dish before the cold wears off. Then I put my hands under cold water again and repeat the process until I am done.
You can use the same technique to handle hot water issues in your relationship. The key is that you need to wait until you have had a really good time together, are both in good moods and feel close and connected – maybe after a meal at your favorite restaurant, after laughing together watching a movie, or celebrating some good news. Then you say, “I have a bone to pick with you”, “I have a pet peeve I want to bring up”, “Something has been bugging me for a while and I wonder if this would be an okay time to bring it up” or some other phrase that will give you a fairly smooth transition to dealing with an issue. When you start from a positive place in your relationship, the negative feelings associated with the difficult issue don’t hurt as much. The good feelings that you and your partner are having act like the cold water when I wash dishes, it allows you to go into the hot topic without getting burned.
Note that this is basically the exact opposite of what most people try to do, the common sense reaction is to not rock the boat when things are going well, why mess up a good time by bringing up a difficult topic. So instead you wait until you are both angry about something and then say to yourself, “what the heck, we are already having a fight so I might as well as get everything off my chest.” The problem is is that if you start out at a -4 and you bring up a hot-button issue that is a -6 then the you end up being a -10, a place where all you are going to do is say things that you will regret later. However when you use the cold water technique you may start out at a +8 and when you bring up the -6 topic you end up with a +2. You still feel connected and are able to empathize with each other and see things from each other’s perspective.
TAKE A LONG WALK
When you make eye contact with someone it stimulates a little almond-sized and almond-shaped part of your brain called the amygdala. Your amygdala has been called the emotional computer of the brain because it gets activated by both positive and negative emotions. Eye contact increases amygdala activity and amplifies whatever emotion you are having at the moment. So when you are falling in love with someone and you look deeply into their eyes it amplifies the positive feelings of love and connection that you and your partner are experiencing. The problem is is that the same thing happens if you are experiencing fear or anger. This is why if a pit bull is growling at you it’s important not to make eye contact because you will increase the dog’s anger. So if your partner is feeling intimidated by you, when you make eye contact you will amplify their fear. If they are angry with you then you will amplify the anger.
So one thing that you can do is to limit eye contact. The problem is that if you are having a conversation with someone – particularly an intense conversation – and you look away, they will take that as a sign that you are dismissing them or lying or worse and they will get even more angry at you. So you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
The solution is put yourself in a setting where it is socially acceptable not to make eye contact. The standard situations that work best are
- Take a long walk. Its always okay to look where you are going. In my experience walking is the best of all because the act of walking is calming and can help burn off any adrenaline that builds up.
- Have a nice meal. It’s always acceptable to look at your fork when you load it up with food. The second best setting is probably eating, especially in a restaurant because eating is calming in and of itself and for most people being in a public place keeps a lid on how loud things can get.
- Take a long drive. Driving or even parking works because its normal to look through the windshield.
- Talk in the dark. Talking in a dark room works because you can’t see each other anyway.
- Love-seats aren’t just for watching TV. You can sit on a love-seat so that your bodies are oriented so that you are both looking forward. Sitting on a love-seat can work well but there is a tendency to want to turn around and make eye contact, especially when things get heated. To limit this I suggest that you hold hands while you are talking as this usually helps you continue to feel connected and reduces the need to make eye contact.
WRITE THREE LETTERS
So you have found the right time to bring it up (cold water) and the right place (long walk) so the only thing left is to decide how to say it. Click here to see the three letter technique blog post to figure out how to craft your message to maximize the likelihood that your partner will hear and understand your concerns.