In my old career, I used to butt heads all the time with one of my business partners. It seemed like everything he said was designed to make me angry on purpose. It’s like he knew what all my “big, red buttons” were, and he would PUSH THEM ALL! We’d have so many long emails back and forth about how much he hurt me and how what he was saying and HOW he was saying it was inappropriate.
One day, he asked me to consider something.
He said, “Next time I piss you off, consider why I would do that? What’s my motivation? If I piss you off on purpose, you’re going to be upset, take more time to do the things I need you to do and take more of MY TIME to talk about it.”
“I want—no, I NEED—you to be happy and do YOUR job so ultimately I can do MY job.”
After that, every time he’d piss me off, I’d stop before I initiated my “anger protocol” and think about his motivation. Then I’d think about what he was asking or telling me. Finally, I’d think about how he was delivering that information.
This three-step process allowed me to take my initial, emotional reaction out of the mix and focus on working together. Later we could talk about how to improve our relationship and find words and ways to communicate that worked more effectively for both of us. We could comprise more when there wasn’t that “knee jerk” response that he was an asshole. Ultimately, the times he made me upset or angry decreased and then disappeared entirely.
Building trust takes time and does require both parties to want to work together AND be willing to listen to each other. This isn’t always possible in all situations (and is even more challenging when there’s a power disparity) so take the following recommendations and apply them only as relevant to your situation.
- Have an actual conversation. I know. I hate meetings too AND I’ve found that communicating in text whether it’s email, DM, text or messenger, can be really hard to understand tone. Sometimes people type fast and miss words or don’t understand how what they’re saying can be interpreted in a hurtful way because it sounds fine in their head. Sometimes punctuation can make something go from “just the facts” to “cold and harsh” in an instant. I’ve learned the hard way that if you’re discussing the same thing over more than two emails and it’s getting heated or complicated—JUST GET ON THE PHONE.
- Consider their motivation. Like in the case of my business partner, stop, and consider if the person wants to intentionally harm you and if so, how they would benefit from doing that. While some people might be that calculating, in my experience, most people do the most harm accidentally. Try to start from a neutral state of mind rather than presuming the worst as you continue to communicate.
- Consider your position of power. All this communicating is hard enough when people are at the same level in terms of power or status. When suddenly you have a power disparity like a boss and an employee or a student and a teacher and you’re the one with the greater power, work to cultivate an environment where people feel like they can express themselves.
- Work to find compromise at the right time. Sometimes “now” is the right time to find a communication compromise and sometimes it’s important to move forward with a project or situation now with crappy communication and commit to reviewing your communication concerns at a later date. Sometimes “now” is the wrong time to chat because everyone is too upset. Timing matters and can lead to better—or worse—outcomes.
- Agree to disagree. Most communication issues can be fixed but some cannot. Sometimes people are not willing to compromise on their communication or maybe they’ve been hurt too many times in the past and have legitimate concerns that their needs will be adequately met. For whatever reason, sometimes the best way to move forward is to not move forward. Maybe you need to switch providers, appeal to a different or higher authority who you feel more comfortable with or sometimes you just need to take a break entirely.
Communicating is hard and is even more challenging in the digital world! How do you improve communication in your life?