A way way to maintain emotional connection in heated moments.
When we disagree, it's easy to argue about the details incessantly, and sometimes that distracts from the emotions that really need to be heard and understood. Here's a guide to taking the time to slow down and focus on the emotions in what we're saying rather than the content, so that afterwards, any content can be discussed from a firm foundation of connection.
There are four stages, described briefly here. Each step gets more thorough explanation below.
- Someone is speaking to what's on their heart. Listener listens with the intention of repeating back, until they ask the speaker, "Can you pause so I can repeat what I've heard so far?"
- Listener repeats back what they heard: "I heard you say..." and ends with, "Is there anything you want to clarify or elaborate?"
- Speaker clarifies or elaborates.
- Listener offers gifts: "Are you open to gifts?"
— "I felt you the most when..."
— "While listening to you, I felt..."
— "What I wish for you is..."
1) Getting Started
This process starts when someone is speaking about something they care about, with a lot of emotion, and the listener notices: "Oh, they're speaking to what's on their heart. Let me listen and empathize."
Common ways this start gets blocked:
- Symmetric Need to Speak. "I can't wait for them to stop talking long enough for me to say what I need to say."
- Contrasting Experience. "Everything they say is wrong, I'll just ignore them until I get my turn to tell them how wrong they are."
- Self-Deprecation. "My opinion clearly doesn't matter, so I'll just shut up now."
In any of these cases, it's common to think, somewhat sarcastically, "Why are they still talking?" Use that. Notice the question, open up your curiosity around it, and genuinely ask and answer it: "Why are they still talking? Oh, they're speaking to what's on their heart. Let me listen and empathize." Connect, then content.
If you're in the "symmetric need to speak" category above, note that if you model what you want, then when you ask to swap roles afterwards, you have a much better chance to be heard. Also note, since this situation is one where you both want the same thing at the same time, the only way to resolve it is by taking turns.
If you're in the "self-deprecation" category, note that closing off your expression is only going to have you both feel more disconnected. What they probably want most is to hear your side, but they have to feel heard before they can listen.
The Listener's Responsibility
Using this organic flow has a major pitfall: the listener must respect their own needs. That is, in stages (1) and (3), the listener must be willing to ask the speaker to pause, even if it means interrupting, before they can't hold any more of the speaker's words. If you struggle with that, consider setting timers:
- 3 mins
- 1 min, 30 secs (half of stage 1)
- 1 min, 30 secs (same as stage 2)
- 3 mins (1 min per gift)
This timing adds up to 10 mins per person, or 20 mins total if you swap roles, once you include all the transition time.
When using the organic flow, to tell when to interrupt as the listener, I like to ask myself, "Am I about to forget what they said at the start?" Then, to motivate interrupting, I tell myself, "They would want to know if I'm about to forget what they've said." The speaker cannot know they're exceeding your capacity unless you tell them.
This also leads to how I handle when I ask, "Can you pause so I can repeat what I've heard so far?" and receive a "No." I then either clarify, "I feel like I can't listen to more without forgetting what you said at the start, are you fine with that?" or negotiate, "I feel like I need a pause in any case. Let me take a few breaths before you continue." Realize that, at some point, if the speaker isn't willing to accomodate for you as the listener, then you certainly have no responsibility to keep listening.
2) Repeating Back
Common mistakes here are to give your own perspective or to strive to get everything right and end with, "Did that sound like everything?"
This is not a test. This is not your chance to speak your peace. This is an opportunity for the speaker to hear what you heard. It's okay, it's good for that to not be everything, because whatever you repeat is what you thought was most important, and if it's not what the speaker thought was most important, then they need to know that!
If you're in the "contrasting experience" category above, then this stage can be difficult – it can be hard to say things you don't believe. Lean into the "I heard you say..." terminology; repeat it for every sentence if you have to. Remember that this is something the speaker feels strongly about, and it will mean a lot to them for you to acknowledge it. Usually, it will mean even more to them once they know you completely disagree with the content. But the focus for now is the emotion, not the content. Connect, then content.
3) Clarify or Elaborate
The above is why the listener asks for "anything to clarify or elaborate" – it's open, reduces focus on the content of what was just said (and the judgment that comes with that) to instead focus on what still feels unfulfilled for the speaker.
So, in this stage, try to own your own experience as the speaker:
- Instead of blaming ("You didn't say...") either simply restate the details without "you", or state your values or emotions that motivate the focus. ("It's really important to me that you know..." "I'll feel closer to you if remember that...")
- Consider the possibility that you may have expressed your views poorly. Instead of "You got it wrong. I didn't say..." consider, "What I meant to say was..."
- Take some time to reflect on what you see now after hearing it all said back to you. Do you have any new insight or changed opinions? The word "now" is powerful here. ("The most important thing to me now is...")
- If you notice wanting to question the listener, ("Did you hear...?" "Do you feel...?") notice that as something unresolved in you and acknowledge it rather than putting that burden on the listener: "I feel afraid and frustrated that you might have missed some things." Connect, then content.
As the listener, you may have a choice to make in this stage. If the speaker starts delving into new content for longer than your reflection, then you can either ask them, "Can you pause so I can give you gifts?" or, if you feel like you have time and emotional space for more, revert to stage (1) and offer to repeat what you heard when you're nearly full again. However, if you notice the speaker repeating themselves in a thought loop, then they probably need closure, and it's better to move on to gifts anyway.
When the Speaker says "No."
If the listener asks, "Are you open to gifts?" and the speaker says, "No," then as the listener, I follow with, "What would serve/support you best right now?" and negotiate from there. It is ultimately up to the speaker to identify what it is that they want and request it explicitly, but as the listener, you can offer suggestions:
- "Do you want me to repeat back what I've heard just now?" or
"I don't have time to repeat back what you've said, do you want to write some of it down to tell me again some other time?"
- "Do you want to take a few breaths?"
- "Do you need food/water/tea?"
- "What's coming up for you right now?"
Note that no stage of this process is required, and if the speaker doesn't want gifts but you have a strong desire to give them, then it is on you to write them down or do whatever it takes to feel resolved while not doing those steps. Similarly, if the speaker has a strong desire to keep repeating stages (1) and (2) but you don't have the time or emotional space for that, then it is on them to write it down or do whatever it takes to feel resolved while not repeating those steps.
Gift: I felt you the most when...
This means: "The time I empathized with you the most...", which requires the listener to think of times the speaker's emotions were most clear and familiar to them.
Since this gift serves to acknowledge the speaker's emotions, it is likely to be the moment they really feel heard, empathized with, and possibly even closure. Which means the speaker is likely to be ready to consider the listener's experience in the next gift.
Gift: While listening to you, I felt...
When filling in this second gift, be sure to stick to describing your emotions, not concepts. If you say, "I felt like..." it's a big red flag that you're probably about to describe a concept, not an emotion.
If emotion words don't come to mind, open up an emotion wheel in a small window so you can only see the center, and start there. Scroll wherever the words land with you the best, and speak to whatever makes sense. It's okay if the words aren't quite right, just speak to that. "I'm not exactly frustrated," or "I feel something between hopeful and inspired," are perfectly fine ways to describe how you're feeling.
An alternative for this gift is, "What came up for me..." which allows a more conceptual response. However, connect before content; it's recommended the listener verify the connection by asking for consent: "Are you open to hearing what came up for me?" If what came up is particularly large and loud, also consider asking to swap to the speaker role after gifts.
Gift: What I wish for you is...
If you struggle with the word 'wish', then "What I want/hope for you..." are good substitutions. This one not only is really good for closure, but also helps cultivate positive regard, the assumption that the person you're talking to doesn't bear ill will towards you.