When communication breaks down, you must try to fix it; but when things go badly, it is very difficult to go back and risk the same breakdown. If you revisit the problem at hand, you must be prepared to do something different. Too often, the revisiting is done by restating what you already said, which will likely result in the other party restating what they already said. Then, it’s strike two.
Revisiting requires a different approach and must start by getting in a calmer emotional state. This can take time. If you don’t take the time to do this, you won’t be able to sort out your thoughts and feelings thoroughly enough. When we are in a heightened emotional state, our stress hormones supercharge our emotions, which often interfere with cognition. Calming is the first order of business for both parties involved. Before beginning again, make sure the other person is also prepared to follow up on the discussion, which might mean a longer wait than you’d like.
Next, it is best to talk about what just happened to you. It’s the “to you” part that is essential. You have to understand what you went through in the earlier conversation: what you were trying to accomplish, what you felt, what you regret about your own behavior, and what you ended up believing about the other person. This is particularly tricky because you must let the other person know you are giving them the benefit of the doubt (for now).
How do you do this? Here’s an example: “John, I’ve been trying to understand what was really important to me in the discussion about our household budget. I know I got really upset and said things that were out of line. I regret that and want to apologize for calling you ignorant and selfish.” Be careful here; we’re not agreeing with John’s point of view or implying that he did everything correctly. It’s just not helpful to characterize or criticize, even if the other may have done something wrong. To continue with our example: “I really want to discuss our finances in a collaborative way so that we’re both in this together [this states intention]. Let me tell you what happened to me in the conversation, and then I’d also like to know what happened for you . . .”
When you tell the other person what you went through in the difficult conversation, you are telling a story, your story. It’s about you, and you have to make that clear; you are not the keeper of truth in the objective sense. You are only the keeper of your own truth and can only tell the other what happened to you. In telling your story, you will also be informing the other person about what you came to believe as a result of the poor interaction between you. In this example, it might be something like this: “So, John, when you were trying to explain the organization of the budget, I felt belittled, as though [benefit of the doubt] you thought I was stupid and don’t understand the structure of budgeting. That’s why I got so angry and called you names.”
Clearly, John has to be patient and understand that you are telling your story and that he, too, will have a chance to tell you what he went through. It is not a time for John to defend himself because he is not being attacked. He is being told what you believed because of the poor interaction. Until you can clarify your reality (story) so the other person knows why things broke down, you can’t get back to the content. When you understand the good intentions of the other and what each of you went through the last time, you have a much better opportunity to have a successful exchange.
Finally, it is a mistake to think you can have a thorough discussion about something of substance quickly and easily. Regardless of your ability to use good communication skills, it always takes more time than you think. If there is a communication breakdown and you have the ability to revisit the topic successfully, that’s a great outcome. I often say to couples, “So what if you have to revisit an important topic twenty-five times, each time getting it a little better, and you ultimately have a good outcome and repair the hurts along the way?” I call that success.
- Take a time-out and calm yourself.
- Find out if the other person is prepared to continue the discussion in a different frame of mind and emotion. It takes as long as it takes.
- State your intent. Say, for example, “That didn’t go very well. I’d like to find a way for us each to better understand what’s important.”
- Express regrets. For example, “I wish I hadn’t said . . .”
- Tell your stories. For example, “This is what I went through . . .,” and highlight your beliefs. Give the other person time and space without interruption. This is not a fact-based discussion. It is meant to let you know what the other experienced so you can improve the interaction as you get back to the content.
- Return to the content with more patience and understanding in a give-and-take discussion.