What To Do When You Are Feeling Overwhelmed by Combative Conversations
We have all been there – sometimes with fairly frequent regularity. We feel overwhelmed with combative conversations. Life is happening so quickly, and in such massive doses, that we don’t know what to do with it. What we want, and what is occurring are two different things. We struggle to take it all in, not wanting to misstep, but sometimes doing so anyway. We correct, and often take it too far the other way. We begin to stall out, and question everything. We are quick to label, evaluate, challenge, call for change, and pronounce judgments. All of which may just exacerbate the situation.
First of all – have compassion for yourself. Take some time out, and take a big breath. Take several. It’s time to calm the chatter that is taking place in your head. Pay attention to your breathing until you have created a stillness in yourself that allows you to think calmly. Stop everything as you do this. Even stop reading this post until you are ready to go on to the next step. Okay – better? Let’s talk about what some have called compassionate communication.
Now – what is taking place? Make your observations without making any judgments. When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying. When you do this with yourself, it can become self-destructive and de-moralizing. This requires you to tell yourself the truth with no fanfare. How do you do that?
- Never make an assumption about what another person is thinking or feeling. Only they know that, and it can be dangerous to infer a state of mind.
- I find it somewhat questionable to make a statement about another person’s state of being. For example, “Judy is a loving woman.” This is a kind thing to say about someone, but do you have more factual information you can share? For example, “Judy drives the Meals on Wheels van every Friday, come rain or shine.”
- Be clear about numbers or behavior rather than speaking in generalized terms. Any time you use the terms always, never, often, too much, aggressive, hateful, ungrateful – you are making a judgment. Rather than say to yourself, “Jane, you are rude, arrogant and judgmental!”, you might try. “Jane you interrupted Marvin three times in 20 minutes.” Or, “Jane, the last three times you have had a conversation with Marvin, you expected him to disagree with everything you said.”
Write down your observations. Be clear. Don’t judge yourself or anyone else, just write them down.
Next, identify and describe your feelings. It doesn’t matter what other people are thinking or feeling. What are you feeling? Can you identify your feelings and describe them as such? Most of us are not able to do that. We have been told that it is inappropriate to have certain feelings, or we express opinions about something rather than how it makes us feel. These types of statements are often heard as criticism, not as an invitation to connect with your/their feelings. It’s really important to distinguish feelings from what you are thinking. When you follow the word feel by any of the following, you may not be making yourself clear:
- that, like, if, or
- I, you, he, she, they, it, or
- names or nouns referring to people, or
- a description of what we think we are, or
- a description of what we think others are doing or feeling around us.
When you describe your feelings, talk about a specific emotion. Don’t generalize or be non-specific. Here’s a perfect example. When people ask you how you are, what do you generally say? Many say “fine”. I often say “great”. Others say “I’m doing okay”. Now, let’s make that specific – I’m feeling very happy today”; ”I am thankful for such a beautiful day today”; “I’m feeling shaky right now, I narrowly missed being run over by a car on my walk this morning”; “I am sleepy today, the storm kept me awake for several hours last night.” It’s interesting to notice the feelings that get raised in each of us as we read those statements, isn’t it? Did you notice a recognition that needs were being met in the first two examples and that they were not in the second two? In all of these examples, you are taking a risk in making yourself vulnerable within a conversation – however, that vulnerability creates connections.
So, how about self-talk? How do you share your feelings with yourself? Are they what you are thinking, or are they emotions. For instance, you’ve had an unproductive conversation with someone. You can talk about what you are thinking – “I feel that Maggie is upset with me”, or express an opinion – “Maggie is upset with me” – and we all do that so very well, don’t we? Or, you can explore the depths of your feelings. “I feel disappointed about my communication with Maggie. ”; or “I feel wretched.” Recognizing those feelings can lead to some amazing insights and outcomes when we also take responsibility for how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as our own needs and expectations in the moment. We have four options in how we choose to receive a negative message. We can:
- Blame ourselves. We accept the other person’s judgment, and we take it personally. In the process, our self-esteem takes a hit and we begin to feel guilt, shame and depression.
- Blame others. We choose to be the victim, and we fault the speaker. This leads to anger.
- We can really look at our own feelings and needs – and link the two by sharing them. “I feel…. Because…..”
- We can look at what the other person feels and needs as they are being expressed. We do this by asking them. When communicating compassionately, we don’t want to assume, judge or assign feelings or needs to someone else.
Let’s talk briefly about the needs at the roots of feelings. When we express our needs through criticism, diagnoses and judgment, others are less likely to hear our needs and hear only criticism. They then are more likely to invest all their energy in self-defense or counterattack. We have a better chance of getting our needs met if we take ownership of them by connecting our feelings to the need we would like to have met.
You’ve made it this far…. Let’s take the final plunge in taking care of this overwhelm! Determine what it is you want! What request would you make of others and yourself to enrich each of your lives? What actions would fulfill both your needs? How do you make that request?
Make it positive!
Be specific! You can’t do a don’t, it generates feelings of won’t. Word your request in the form of concrete actions that can be accomplished by you or others. Being vague in your language often masks your wish for how you want other people to be or feel, or gamesmanship on your part. Many times we are so unaware of our feelings and needs, even we don’t often recognize that is what we are doing.
Make sure you are not just expressing your feelings and needs, but that you are taking it further by making a specific request. Otherwise, others may think we are simply expressing ourselves to make them feel guilty. Have a dialogue with the other person, don’t just talk to or at them, otherwise they may not know what to do. The opposite is true, as well. Don’t make a request without sharing the feelings and needs – it just becomes a demand at that point. It is also noteworthy to know that requests are seen as demands when the listener believes they will be blamed or punished if they do not comply. It goes a long way when we let them know that it is our desire for them to comply only if they can do so willingly.
Make sure your message was sent the same way it was received. Asking the receiver to reflect it back to you is VERY effective!
How does this help with your feelings of being overwhelmed?
Most often the feelings of overwhelm come because we feel we have no control over the situation and we don’t know what to do to resolve it, or get what we want out of it. We can easily fall into the trap of blaming others, or blaming ourselves, for actions taken, situations that have happened and words that have been shared. All of this activity is outward activity, and rarely takes into account our feelings and the reasons for those feelings – the needs that are not being met. It also rarely takes into account the feelings and needs of anyone else involved in the situation. When we can identify clearly what it is that we want, and what feelings that need generates when it is not met, we are more able to ask for it in ways that others can meet.
Today I will take the time to identify my feelings and the underlying need, and share those with the people I care about when I request their help in enriching both of our lives.
What need would you like to have met today?