Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Part I - The Communication Process

Wow, I just had an epiphany about the way I communicate with people. I've been learning about this for years, I've read books, spoken with friends, accepted feedback, even taken classes about interpersonal and business relationships. But just a couple days ago it all came together in my mind and I'm pretty excited about it. There's a lot to it.... it's pretty complex. So it's going to take me a few postings to go through it all. But boy, it's clear as day to me now how to improve the way I relate with others.

I used to complain, actually still do sometimes, when people pissed me off. I spoke about how good or bad folks made me feel. I've heard people tell me awful stories of how their boss, parents, boy/girl friend, husband, wife, whoever treated them. I've heard stories of all the things those people did to them. I've even heard people describe a fight with someone and add, "how did he expect me to react?" And... well, I bought it. After all, if somebody called me "stupid" weren't they insulting me? Of course they made me feel bad about myself! Why were they so surprised when I insulted them back?

Well, I was really far off base! Nothing's further from the truth. I was the one making myself upset. I deflated my own ego. All those friends of mine, they did it to themselves. HUH? You've GOT to be kidding me! That aspect of communications all became clear to me when I learned about all the stuff that happens in the split instant between somebody insulting me, and me flipping them the finger. Sure, it always seemed like they made me flip them off, or whatever it was that I did. But really I chose it.

Before I explain all that, let me give you an example: Let's say I go sightseeing at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco with a friend. My buddy drove his car, and I brought the digital camera. We get there, and he decides to park in a dark corner of a parking garage. Thinking about other things, I leave my camera in the car. We have fun, even if we couldn't take any pictures. When we get back to the car, we find the window smashed in. And, as could be expected, the mad smasher stole my camera. Here's a conversation that might have taken place:

Me: Oh Shit! They broke into your car!
Him: Man! I can't afford to fix that.... what am I going to do now? Why the hell did you leave your camera in the seat anyway!
Me: I forgot it! Don't you ever forget things? Why the hell did you park way back here!
Him: The parking lot was full... it was the only spot left. And who knew this place was dangerous!

Around and around we go, getting more and more upset. Obviously a really bad interaction. But let's dissect the thing. A heck of a lot happens between our comments... A LOT! Here's what REALLY happens:

  • He says something.
  • I hear what he said.
  • I think and make assumptions about what his words mean.
  • I form a judgment based on my thoughts.
  • That judgment triggers an emotion in me.
  • I decide how I'm going to react.
  • I react.

There's a lot more there than I ever realized, especially in that split instant. Initially it seemed overly convoluted, and even a bit unbelievable. But now, I see it. Let's take his comment on the second line, "Why the hell did you leave your camera in plain sight...". I heard his words & tone. I saw his body language. I thought to myself, "he's pissed at me, and thinks it's my fault that his car window was smashed." Next I formed my judgment, "No, he's wrong! I'm not to blame for this!" Now I felt my emotion, probably anger, or resentment. Then I decided to defend myself, even point out that he's responsible. Finally, I react by being verbally aggressive. At that point, of course, the process starts all over again in his mind.

Wait a second, though, what's the implication of all this? Well, since I made up my mind to respond the way I did, I can no longer believe that he made me do it. In fact, I now know that the anger and resentment I felt was a product of my own judgment. That judgment, in turn, I based on two things: (1) my history, beliefs and values, and (2) his words and actions. (Some folks call this my "filter".) The judgment, therefore, is all mine too! Sure, he acted the way he did, he said what he did. But what I did with it was all mine!

So, I have to take full responsibility for my actions, feelings, judgments and thoughts. Honestly I could have chosen another path. Here's another situation (that happens from time to time) between my 3-year-old son and I. He acts up. I put him in a timeout. He gets even more upset that he's in time out. He yells and screams and says some inappropriate things like, "Daddy, I hate you!" What happens in me then is completely different from the garage. I think, "he's frustrated and still very young... he knows not what he's saying". My judgment is, "don't sweat it! If I did he'd probably just get more riled up". I feel, resolved and comfortable, if we're in public I'd probably mix in embarrassed. I react by simply waiting until he's calmed down, then I ask if he's ready, give him a hug, and move on with whatever we're doing. Completely my own thoughts, judgments, feelings and actions. Couldn't I have followed a similar train of thought in the garage? Sure....

I know parents who take stuff like that personally. In the supermarket the other day, I saw a screaming kid say that to his mom. She turned to him and said, "Yeah! Well, I hate you too!" That mom really bothered me... still, I now know, with absolute clarity, that the kid had NOTHING to do with Mom's vicious reply. In fact, the kid didn't even "make" her mad. The mom may have believed that, the kid unfortunately may have too, but I sure don't. She did it all on her lonesome.... the kid just didn't have the tools to manage his emotions. In my view, he doesn't have the best teacher either.

Bottom line for me: I'm actually choosing what I think, how I feel and what I do in every situation. Now that I understand how it works, it's easier for me to step back and evaluate my interactions. Believe it or not, I've learned quite a bit about managing this whole process by simply understand it. I'm interacting in a much more positive way today, as a result.

My epiphany is that a whole lot of stuff, just like this concept, actually fit very neatly together. Ever since that clicked in, I've been able to clearly understand how I react to people, and actually improve it pretty dramatically. Stay tuned for the next few posts, as I plan on going through the whole group of concepts.

Now.... On to Part II - Blame sucks!

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