How often do we listen with genuine curiosity? Maybe when we first meet someone, we show this sort of reverence to the conversation. If we didn’t, we’d have a hard time making friends. But as our relationships become more involved, more intimate, and more important, a paradoxical phenomenon seems to occur: we seem to be less likely to listen in a way that supports the relationship, and more likely to listen in a way that supports our ego.
Seemingly, the more invested we are, the more we feel the need to defend our position and this defensiveness is the antithesis of genuine curiosity. But genuine curiosity will actually lead to a resolution much more quickly and seamlessly than defensiveness. So why and where do we get stuck? Well, as we enter into more intimacy in our relationships, our emotions begin to increase in intensity. Remember when you and your significant other were still new in your relationship and s/he first did something that made you feel disappointed? You probably do recall. You had to face the fact that they are different from you. They do things differently, say things differently, and sometimes hurt your feelings in the process. How did you come back together? How did you resolve it? When you shared how you were feeling, did they respond in a way that made you feel safe? Or did defensiveness arise in them? Did defensiveness arise in you? We can all relate to this. We have all been in a position in which we are feeling accused of something we are sure we did not do and we feel the need to set the record straight. I am not all of those things you are saying I am! I can assure you. Now listen to me while I convince you of this! The technique rarely works, so why do we feel so compelled to engage in this way?
We do this with our partners, our children, our parents, and sometimes our friends and colleagues. Anger is an action emotion. It literally energizes our bodies toward action. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. And at times we need anger and the urges associated with it to get us moving and to protect the things that are really important. But anger is not a great ally when a situation calls for slow, controlled words and actions. It spouts off before we even know what we’re saying. So, if you want to resist going into battle with your loved ones, here are some steps you can take:
- Take a step back. Stop what you are doing. Take a breath. Become mindful of your body sensations, your thoughts, your emotions and your desires. What’s at the heart of the matter? (e.g. “I need my feelings to be heard and understood.” or “I want her to know that I didn’t intend to hurt her.”)
- Respond to whatever is happening in your own body, mind, and heart with compassion. You can say to yourself, “This is really hard and painful.” Allow the sensations to rise and fall.
- Move into a listening space as you are ready. Ask yourself, “What does s/he need me to hear right now?” When we are listening to the other person’s experience with true curiosity, it makes it much easier to then respond with compassion, “Yes, I understand. Of course you felt hurt. I can see how this happened.” This doesn’t mean that you said something hurtful on purpose. The validation that you are providing doesn’t mean that you are giving up your side. It simply means that you get it. Once a person feels heard, doors open for new understandings. It is then easier to explain to your partner that you did not intend to hurt him/her, or to explain your position and the ways in which your feelings might have been hurt as well. Once you validate another, they are more likely to validate you. The result is mutual feelings of being understood.
Hearts are tender, no matter what. And if we could approach one another with the tenderness that our hearts long for, our conflicts would turn quickly into opportunities for connection and healing. This is a tall order when anger arises, followed by urges to act in line with it. We tend to act, in a matter of split seconds, without thinking, trying to defend our position and our egos, and putting our relationship second in priority to self-preservation. The problem is the “self” is not actually being threatened. So, can we practice letting go of defensiveness, and instead taking up self-compassion, genuine curiosity, validation, and openness? Can we transform the action-oriented energy of anger into the action-oriented energy of compassion?
For further reading, I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames and Braving the Wilderness byBrené Brown.