Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
He had just finished speaking to his daughter on the phone and, from the sounds of it, the conversation didn't go too well.
The call ended and he immediately made his way toward me.
"Can you believe it? All she did was blame me the entire time."
I didn't hear exactly what was said on the call, but it sounded like he wasn't treated very nicely. And unsurprisingly, he responded in kind, speaking rather aggressively to his daughter.
He spoke to me for some time about his outrage. Eventually, he asked me for my opinion.
And what did I really think? Well, from my point of view, I thought he was not being responsible for his own reaction.
See, I'm a firm believer that we can't control how others behave. What we can control is our reaction. So much of what I practice and teach my clients is how to hone this skill. It allows me and my clients to go through life unperturbed by circumstances and peoples' behaviors. With that equanimity comes more ease and peace of mind.
But here is the mistake I made: that's not what he wanted to hear.
What he wanted to hear was that he was right.
He wanted to hear that he was right to react the way he did, to feel the way he did. He was looking to hear that he was right about the fact that she was blaming him and that he was justified in the way that he responded. It didn't actually matter what I thought. He was looking to hear something specific.
And so he reacted quite poorly to me. He dismissed my comments and stormed off. It was clear to me that something had gone awry in our interaction. I couldn't put my finger on it.
Shortly afterward I realized that I had made a common mistake, ignoring one of my most important communication rules: Feelings first, then problem-solving.
I don't know about you, but I looooveeeeee solving problems. I absolutely love it! Who cares about feelings? I'm all about getting to the bottom of things and having the problem dealt with once and for all, as quickly as humanly possible.
And that is a crucial communication mistake.
Because unless feelings are acknowledged and validated, they are bound to get in the way of any problem solving there is to do.
When feelings are acknowledged and validated, the other person knows that their feelings matter to you. You ensure they know that their feelings made an impression on you.
What this ultimately demonstrates is that you're working to understand them. When they feel like they're understood, they are much more likely to listen to you.
And this is what I neglected to do in this conversation.
What did I do? I gave him advice. I pointed out how he could have reacted better in this situation, how he could rectify the situation by taking responsibility. Not once did I acknowledge or validate his feelings. In fact, I completely skipped over the fact that he was feeling totally upset!
Looking back, here is how I would have acknowledged and validated his feelings:
"Clearly you're feeling really upset about this."
"No wonder you're upset, given that you were blamed like that."
"Of course you're frustrated by that conversation! Anyone in your situation would feel that way."
What I'm doing with these responses is normalizing how he feels. I am acknowledging that, yes, he is feeling upset. And I am validating those feelings by letting him know that it is normal and natural to feel that way given the circumstances.
This is an incredibly powerful communication tool that you can introduce to any relationship be it with your partner, your family, or even in the workplace.
Feeling heard and understood by someone is a magical feeling. There is something special about being "gotten" by someone. For me, it is like a release, a discharge of built-up energy. It's the kind of feeling you get after taking a really long, deep breath in a stressful situation.
Who will you acknowledge and validate?