“I must be willing to give up what I am, in order to become what I will be.”
– Albert Einstein
– Albert Einstein
No kidding. It doesn’t do what you think it does.
Let me be clear—when you make a mistake and hurt someone or inconvenience them—apologize. Mistakes happen, and it is important to tell the person you distressed that you understand your actions affect them. I’m all for apologies in that case. Taking responsibility for how our actions affect others is important.
Here is where sorry is not helpful—when you make a choice you know will not please someone else and you apologize, hoping they will make you feel better about your choice.
When you say sorry in that case you likely have an agenda.
You are either:
These agendas may be unconscious. They are still agendas.
It is irritating to have someone inconvenience you, and then be asked to reassure them either by not reacting or by making them feel better.
What is the alternative? Take responsibility for your choices. You made a choice someone else didn’t like. Own your choice.
Here is a common example. Most of us apologize for being late.
Most of us (including me at times) say, “I’m sorry I’m late. Traffic was awful” or “I hit every red light” or, my favorite excuse in Seattle in the summer, “the bridge was up.” Really? Did lights suddenly appear on the route? Are we really surprised that traffic exists? Did I forget that people boat in the summer?
It would be more honest to say, “I didn’t leave on time.”
When we say that, we take ownership. We admit we chose to make our time more important than theirs. We don’t ask the other person to excuse us for our choice to not leave earlier.
I usually leave to go somewhere allowing the amount of time it takes when there is no traffic. Usually it works out, but I live in Seattle; we have awful traffic. I’m late sometimes. I do my best to own it. If people are mad I let them be angry. They get to have their reactions. If they get angry, you can bet I’m going to leave a cushion of time for our next meeting.
Along with taking responsibility for your choices, it is helpful to be honest about your reactions. That way the other person will know the consequences of their choices.
If someone apologizes to me, especially if they have done an action repeatedly, I say, “Don’t apologize, you made your choice,” or “No need to apologize.” If I am angry I will tell them—not to have them make me feel better, but to let them know how I really feel.
When people keep apologizing it just pisses me off. Really? You just inconvenienced me, and now you want me to not experience what I feel? (A good rule of thumb: It is not helpful to tell people not to feel what they feel.)
So I say, “I’m angry. I don’t need you to make me feel better. I’m just angry that I waited for you.” I don’t try to hide my irritation or anger, at least as much as possible. It is hard to have someone be uncomfortable with my feelings. It has taken a lot of practice, and sitting in discomfort, for me to be able to let people know when I am angry.
For some, not asking for forgiveness and letting people know how you really feel will be a radical practice. Some of you won’t like it and will feel it is not nice. For some of you, it will be a relief to be more honest. I suggest you try taking more responsibility and be more honest with your feelings, and notice what you experience.
The beauty is you get to choose what you do.
I just had what could have been a very painful conversation with a good friend of mine. It could have been, but it wasn’t. At one point she stopped and said, “This is going a LOT better than I expected.” I wholeheartedly, and with no small amount of relief, agreed.
I was pondering why it went so well.
It was a superstar of a conversation because of these elements we both contributed to our discussion. Read below for 7 tips to effectively resolve conflict.
1. Do your best to avoid saying “you” as in “you are the problem”
We both used “I statements.” I statements are when you say what you are feeling because of the situation. Here is an example: “I am feeling angry because I don’t feel heard sometimes.”
Here is what NOT to say: “You make me so angry when you purposefully ignore me!”
Here is the secret of I statements. When humans hear the word “you” they start defending themselves, even if they don’t know what they need to defend against.
Think about it, when someone says to you, “When you…” your brain immediately starts coming up with reasons you didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t even need to know what the other person thinks you did “wrong.”
As soon as you use the word “you” when complaining, the other person immediately becomes less available to what you are saying. So whenever possible use “I” in your communication.
2. Say what you are feeling, not that they are creating your feeling in you.
Consider these two ways of saying the same thing: 1) “I am angry because we are leaving late for the airport and I had asked that we be ready to leave 15 minutes ago” and, 2) You make me so angry when you continually ignore the fact that I get anxious when we don’t have plenty of time at the airport.” It is much harder for someone to sound reasonable if they say, “you shouldn’t be angry” than if they say, “You shouldn’t let that obviously tiny, inconsequential thing I did bother you.” If you focus on the feeling rather than the action, you will get more to the root of what is going on, rather than the surface irritant. In the example above, the root is not feeling listened to, not the airport leaving time.
3. Don’t create motivations or feelings for the other person’s behavior.
There are two problems with telling the other person what their motive is: 1) They can argue with you about what their motive is vs focusing on what you want to change; and 2) you are very possibly wrong. I know, that seems completely unbelievable when you think you have been wronged. When we feel we have been wronged, our ego does a lovely job at convincing us our interpretation of events is the only possible interpretation. And…you are still possibly wrong.
4. Remain curious.
I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m not sure why, but it is impossible to be curious and judgmental at the same time. We can’t be curious about what the other person is thinking and feeling and think they are a moron. Really listen to the other person. Try to see the situation from their perspective, not just how their words do/do not fit into your own narrative.
When I aired my complaints to my friend, she said, “I’m curious, are you talking about the present or last year?” She didn’t say, “I haven’t done that since last year, aren’t you paying attention (you moron)!”
5. Be compassionate.
This fits in with seeing it from their perspective, but it goes deeper. The perspective shift is almost an intellectual process, whereas being compassionate or having empathy is more rooted in feeling. Both can be helpful. Compassion opens our heart. A closed heart makes for a good you-versus-me fight. Sometimes I rest my hand on my heart to help me remember to keep my heart open.
6. Stay focused on the topic instead of creating an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink argument.
This type of argument is when we bring in all the problems we have every had with the other person. This is a favorite tactic to make ourselves look more wronged and better than the other person. (You may not think you are doing this but notice how you feel when you are listing everything the other person has done wrong.) We cannot solve everything and the kitchen sink in one conversation. We can make progress on a single issue.
7. In the beginning, at the end, and (if you can) during the conversation, tell the person what you appreciate about them.
As I was talking with my friend, I was telling her what I have appreciated about her throughout our friendship. As I was telling her, I felt my heart open, and she also felt my love for her. You can bet both of us became less tense and more gentle because of that.
These tips work for me. Try them and see if your next fight becomes a discussion that clears the air and draws you closer. It is possible to leave the conversation feeling more intimate rather than angrier and more distant.
That’s what you really want when you start the conversation, right?
For a fascinating view of how your brain works, and what you can do to create a more joy-filled life, read “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor. More about the book is at the end of this article.
One of the most interesting facts the author shared is when we are triggered, the body’s chemical response lasts for 90 seconds. That’s it. It takes the body 90 seconds from the trigger to run through the entire chemical reaction, to get back to normal. So, if you get angry or sad about something from the past, and your reaction lasts over 90 seconds you are doing something to prolong it. If you either suppress the emotion or think stories to bolster the emotion, you are doing it, not your body.
So, the next time you are dwelling on some past hurt, remember, you are prolonging the loop with your thoughts. As you notice this, try your best not to beat yourself up for this fact.
Try this instead, notice the negative thought loop, and label it, without judgement. For instance, “Oh look, I am thinking about what Sally said that hurt me yesterday.” Notice I didn’t say “Geez, I can’t believe I’m still thinking about that event” or “Crap! I’m doing it again! Why can’t I stop thinking about that?”
The first example is simply labeling what is happening, the next two examples are beating myself up, and thus prolonging the loop.
Next, do things that help you come into the present moment vs. the past. Notice your breath, focus on something you are grateful for, pay attention to the sounds and sights around you, examine what you are actually feeling in your body. Basically, you are interrupting your left brain’s attempt to create a negative story and make you believe it.
Now do this at least a hundred times. Seriously. I’m not kidding.
When we are interrupting well-worn thought patterns, it takes conscious effort to interrupt those neural pathway patterns enough so they become less of a go-to thought. You have spent years, maybe decades, reinforcing thought patterns of hurt, sadness, anger, and/or worry. Give yourself a break if it takes longer (like WAY longer) to stop a troublesome way of thinking than you would like.
It is worth it. You are worth it.
If you want to learn more about how our brain naturally functions to help you in learn how to work with it, read “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.” This book shows us, from a scientist’s perspective, how we shape our reality with our thoughts. Dr. Bolte Taylor had a stroke during which she lost her analytical, critical, problem searching and problem-solving part of her brain for several years. Her right brain, the part that had no need to find problems, or judge anything, including herself, was most in charge. That part felt joy, a sense of peace and oneness, FOR YEARS. Cool huh?
As Dr. Bolte Taylor’s left brain came back on board, through much effort, the author realized she could think critically without bringing back the criticism and need to judge as default patterns. She saw how her left brain created negative stories it wanted her right brain to believe. She saw she had a choice not to believe the stories.
We all have this choice, without being a neuroscientist, without having a stroke. One thought at a time.
Seattle Times recently wrote an article about the uptick in patients struggling with post-election anxiety. Dr. Tornatore is quoted with some helpful tips on how to keep our anxiety at bay.
I Can’t “Buck Up”
I don’t contain my irritation well. I would love to have that skill, but I don’t. Instead, I developed the skill of self-care. When I take care of myself, I am a calmer, kinder person.
When I don’t, my irritation leaks out in side comments or a burst, like when I yelled at my brother, stomped up the stairs and slammed the door, with my entire family as a witness. Not one of my finer moments.
It is a sign that I am not practicing what I preach. I am known for taking good care of myself and for endlessly championing self-care to others. For me, self-care includes vigorous exercise, meditation and time to myself. I have been doing none of those and it showed. I behaved badly.
I have a good excuse, my Mom is dying. Even that good of an excuse does not cut it. It doesn’t magically make me a Zen person who can handle grief, stress and exhaustion with good grace.
Instead of easing stress, which is my goal, I created it. So…it is time to do what I know works.
It is time to be kind to myself so I can be kind to others. Because that is how it works.