Them there are fightin’ words!

Your previously scheduled program is being interrupted to bring you the following special.

Wow! I didn’t know what to say! After practicing podiatry for several years I’d decided that surgery wasn’t my thing. I felt ill-prepared for all parts of the surgical process – the pre-op decision making, the technical components of the surgery, and the post-op management and possible complications. I wasn’t living in an area where support was easily accessible – and I really didn’t know how to ask for what I needed anyway. Add to that my preoccupation with perfection – and I was slowly killing myself with stress. Something had to give, and I decided for the sake of my health and that of my patients, surgery would no longer be in my repertoire. I’d heard of podiatrists who didn’t perform surgery, but they certainly weren’t the norm. My decision left me feeling relieved and isolated all at the same time. I broke the news to my office manager – who also happened to be my husband – with hopes of gaining support in my corner.

Now for those of you who have loved Jeff, stick with me here. I promise I’m not throwing him under the bus. He might look more human to you before this is over, but human is enough. In fact, human was exactly what I was needing!

To think his response would be supportive was a miscalculation. He said some fightin’ words topped with a healthy serving of spite. “How can you even call yourself a doctor if you don’t do surgery?!”

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Wow! My waves crashed! I didn’t know what to say! The options as I knew them to be…

  • Tell him what a jerk he was being. Nah. Two wrongs don’t make a right.  Besides it certainly wouldn’t swing him around my way. I didn’t do that.
  • Smile. Say nothing. Make him a special supper. Lavish kindness on him. Turn the other cheek. Bite a hole in my tongue while disguising the truth of my angst. When I couldn’t take the inner turmoil any longer, complain to my friends about the terrible things he said, driving a wedge of separation between us. I didn’t do that either – at least not the first part.
  • I could tell myself not to take things so personal. I shouldn’t be so easily offended. I should just live my own life and not be so influenced by what he thinks of me. Shame myself out of my feelings. But that would have required a medically-induced coma to achieve. I didn’t do that.
  • Put up a boundary. Something like “It hurts me when you talk that way. If you speak disparagingly to me again, I will have to….blah, blah, blah.”  Have you ever noticed that boundaries ill-played can come out sounding demanding and controlling? What I wanted was someone in my corner. Forcing an external behavior would do nothing to assure me I had someone in my corner. And if I wasn’t successful in forcing the external behavior, would I really follow through on the “consequence” (aka – threat). I didn’t do that either.
  • Explain to him why I could still call myself a doctor so he would apologize for his ignorant, mean words. I would win him over with facts and information while keeping a distance from either one of our hurts and needs. Always the believer in logic, I did that. It had zero impact. He wasn’t interested in a logical explanation as to why I still considered myself a legitimate doctor.

The tools in my “navigating human interactions” tool chest were perhaps typical, but were weighed in the balances and found to be wanting. At the time you can be sure I didn’t see it that way. I only saw that he had been found wanting.

Now, I promised there wasn’t going to be a casualty. Stick with me. We’re about to get to the saving part. Nobody is going under the bus.

Some fifteen years later… I GOT A NEW TOOL! It provides a framework for taking the weight out of the words while hearing, loving, and connecting to the person. It’s a judgment-free zone. No need to concern yourself with who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the good person and who’s the bad. Those classifications are inconsequential. (IKR…! What is this heresy!) No internal or external brainwashing, tongue biting, or manipulating involved.

And dog-gone-it, what I wouldn’t give for a do-over!

We would have ROCKED this thing!

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What is this magical tool that has brought such hope? It’s called Non-Violent Communication. It’s got simplistic ideas like developing giraffe instead of jackal ears. (Learn more here and here…) But to say it will be simple to adopt as a way of thinking would be highly inaccurate. No new way of thinking is going to be simple after 50 years of paving the neural roads. I mean, really, what about that part where there’s “no need to concern yourself with who’s right and who’s wrong”…?? That alone requires a major detour!

A basic premise of NVC is that all communication can be boiled down to either a please or a thank you. If needs aren’t being met, it will be a please. If needs are being met, it will probably be a thank you. Things that you might have considered fightin’ words, you can now think of as a tragic expression of a please. “Tragic” because the veiled request is unlikely to result in anyone’s needs actually being met. But given compassion, time, and effort, we can get there without inciting World War III or adding a new layer to our Enemy Image portrait (more about that here). And the good news, it only takes one person to change the tide of a conversation.

“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”
― Marshall Rosenberg

So here’s how I imagine the conversation could have gone using my very novice Non-Violent Communication skills…

  • Hubs – “How can you even call yourself a doctor if you don’t do surgery?!” (There’s no way to twist that around to make it thank you. It is most certainly a tragic expression of please help me.)
  • Me – “It sounds like you’ve got strong feelings about this. I want to understand. Are you feeling afraid?” (If one person isn’t equipped to express their feelings and needs, the other person helps them out by guessing and checking.)
  • Hubs – “Yes, I’m afraid. I don’t think you understand what this will do to our future!” (Hubs expressed his feeling – but hasn’t expressed his need that causes the feeling.)
  • Me – “In what way? What do you mean by that?”
  • Hubs – “How can you make a living and support our family not doing surgery?”
  • Me – “Ok, tell me if I am getting this right. You’re afraid for our financial security if I don’t perform surgeries. You need to know that our family will be provided for. You have a need for financial security.”
  • Hubs – “Yes!”
  • Me – “Ok. What can we do that would reassure you? Can we run some reports and review them together? Talk with other podiatrists? Would those things help?”  (And here we jumped straight to strategy to meet the need.)
  • Hubs – “Yeah, ok. That would help.”
  • (Now that his feelings and needs were met, then it would be time to get to my feelings and needs.)

Now – realistically do I think this emotionally charged situation would have been peacefully resolved in six interchanges. Nope. But you get the gist. In my heart, I can now empathize with his feelings and needs. I hear his “please!” on so many levels and in so many ways. The unresolved conflict had nothing to do with anyone being bad or wrong or offensive. It had everything to do with unexpressed feelings and unmet needs – which thankfully can be corrected with a bit of effort.

By connecting on a deeper level to the needs we have in common, compassion is aroused and both parties become more inclined to consider mutually-agreeable strategies to resolve the matter. Being fully, deeply human is exactly what works best to resolve conflict.

I challenge you, if you’re feeling offended by someone in your life, try something different with your conversation next time. It can get better from here.

 

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