A Cool Head Always Prevails

You will never correct what you are unwilling to confront.

Talk to a senior citizen about changes they’ve seen in communication the last 75 years, and you’ll hear dismay in their voices. They’ll describe a time when a child would never think of sassing back a parent, and an employee would never think of using the coffee break as a time to rip apart the boss. They’ll describe a time when respect for elders and respect for authority were simply a given.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Common courtesy is not so common anymore. Rudeness and disrespect have flourished, and in some cases, rudeness and disrespect are esteemed as signs of cleverness or assertiveness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rudeness and disrespect are still as dehumanizing and inappropriate as ever. They’ve just been glamorized by the media.

Indeed, most sitcom humor is based on rude, disrespectful put downs of one another. Just this last week for example, in a mere five minutes of television, I heard one character say, “I’ll try being nicer if you’ll try being smarter,” to which the other character responded, “I will always cherish the initial misconceptions I had about you.” After a bit more sparring, another person interjected, “I’m not being rude; you’re just insignificant.”

Obviously, there are times you’ve got to confront others. You’ll never correct what you’re unwilling to confront. But rudeness and disrespect is not the way to go, and neither is silence and denial. None of these approaches work. As Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.”

So how do you get through a conflict or interpersonal problem? Of course I could speak for a whole day on that, and I often do at my program on “Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead Of Coming Apart.”

But START BY THINKING BEFORE YOU SPEAK. You may need time to cool down, to gather your thoughts, to make sure your comments are helpful than rude and disrespectful. Afterall, the first screw that often works loose in a person’s head is the one that holds the tongue in place.

Then BE DIRECT. Forget the hinting, indirect approach. It seldom works.

I remember one woman who talked about a light bulb going out in her ten-foot high kitchen ceiling. All week she mentioned the problem to her husband. She even tucked a flashlight under her chin while doing dishes to give him a hint. Finally she yelled, “Why haven’t you replaced the bulb?” He said, “You didn’t ask me.”

On a personal level, men and women often have difficulty hearing what the other wants if they don’t receive a clear, direct request. The same is true with coworkers.

So try this. To be direct, start by saying, “I have a problem.” Explain why you’re upset, and then say what you’d like the other person to do to be of help.

Then WORK TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING. Even though you might be tempted to “prove” who’s right and who’s wrong, don’t. It doesn’t work, and it does not matter. Often times, both parties are “right” — or at least they “think” they’re right.

For example, if I hold up a glass of water in front of my audience and ask them what they see, I’ll get a variety of answers. Some will say it’s half full, and others will say it’s half empty. Someone else will say it’s a glass while another one says it’s a tumbler. Of course they would all be “right.”

Don’t waste your energy on who’s right. Work towards understanding instead. And one of the best ways to do that is to use the three magical words, “Help me understand.” Those words will help the two of you move closer to resolution.

As you do that, clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t assume anything. When you’re not exactly sure of something, seek clarification until you are. Paraphrase each other’s comments, asking such things as “Are you saying… So what you want is…?”

STAY CALM, COOL, POSITIVE, AND PROFESSIONAL. Even when the other person doesn’t deserve it, even if the discussion is not going too well, continue to behave respectfully. Not only will you feel good about yourself afterwards, but it also works most of the time.

Just make the decision to speak with decorum no matter how angry or frustrated you are. If you let yourself blow up, people will not feel safe around you. Their fear of your unpredictability will keep them at a distance or ducking behind psychological walls. And, of course, if that happens, nothing will ever get resolved.

If you need to practice emotional self-control, the next time you feel like you’re losing it, just see your situation as a chance to practice self-control. Remind yourself that the more you practice the better you’ll get. You’ll find it easier to remain calm when the tension is high.

Just make sure you resist the very tempting, almost overwhelming desire to fight fire with fire. It’s like the fellow who was seated in the movie theatre when a large woman wanted to be seated in his row also. The man stood up so she could get through, but she stepped on his foot.

The man screamed in pain and said, “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

The large woman turned on him. “Why don’t you,” she huffed, “put that foot of yours where it belongs?”

“Don’t tempt me, lady,” snapped the man. “Don’t tempt me.”

Action:  The next time you get criticized, refrain from the very natural urge to automatically explain or justify your behavior. Instead, ask the other person at least five questions to further clarify and understand his/her criticism. Then work at finding some mutually acceptable solution.