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In my work with people, communication is something that often comes up in our conversations. It seems challenging to have an effective conversation where everyone involved feels listened to, heard and understood.

What does it take to have a meaningful, effective, respectful conversation? Most people think, but they won’t actually say, that their conversations are successful when they get what they want. This is a poor way to gauge a conversation’s effectiveness.

People involved in important communication are focused on getting what they want from the conversation, and most people want whatever is being discussed to match the ideal outcome in their heads. This is one of many reasons why it’s almost impossible to have a civil conversation around politics in this climate. These days, almost everyone who engages in a political conversation wants to change the other person’s views. When this doesn’t happen, they might resort to attacking the person’s character or intelligence. Just yesterday, I had a lovely, civil conversation with my youngest brother, a strong conservative, about the upcoming election. Neither of us was trying to change the other person’s mind. We just wanted to understand how each of us was thinking and what we based those opinions on. It was eye-opening and each of us learned things we didn’t know. This is not the norm.

When life partners engage in an important or difficult conversation, it typically involves one person wanting the other person to change in some way. This can be approached nicely or with anger and frustration, but the effect is almost always the same. People resent being criticized, and when the one person who is supposed to love them sees a flaw they want corrected, it rarely hits the person with appreciation. They feel criticized and want to dig in or strike back.

When parents talk with their children, it typically resolves around something similar—fixing their child in some way. It can also happen at work where one person wants something from another and has a difficult time communicating that without the other person becoming defensive.

Once the desire to change another person enters the equation, you have lost any semblance of effective communication. Does that mean you have to just suck it up? Of course not. There are several options available to you. When there is something you want from another person, you have the right to ask for what you want. This is time to take a page out of Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Let’s say you want your partner to fill their car up with gas when they reach a quarter of a tank. Seeing the low fuel indicator lit up on the dash is maddening to you. Instead of beginning the conversation with, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you have got to fill the car up with gas by the time you are on a quarter of a tank,” it might be better to say, “When I got in your car today, I noticed your gas light was on. When I see that, I get concerned because I imagine you stranded on the side of the road and my mind runs wild thinking of the horrible things that could happen to you. I know you are comfortable filling your car up below a quarter of a tank, but if I use your car, I’ll always fill it up if the light is on. I want to understand what you are thinking when the light comes on. Do you have a cushion in your mind?”

Once you ask for understanding, you need to maintain that air of curiosity instead of shifting into judgement. You want to understand them, how they think and process the situation. Your partner may be thinking, I know how far I can go once the light comes on. I’ve never run out of gas. Why does it bother you so much? Your job at this point is to do your absolute best to place yourself in their shoes, see the world through their eyes and imagine what the situation looks like for them. You are already an expert on your opinion. You don’t need any more information regarding what you think. It’s important for you to understand where your partner is coming from.

When you believe you understand, it’s time for you to evaluate if there is anything truly wrong with the way they see the world or how they do things. Become clear on why it bothers you. It may sincerely be that you are worried about their safety if they run out of gas alongside the road. You may be concerned about being inconvenienced when they run out of gas and you are called to go pick them up. You may believe running the gas tank below a quarter will damage the car in some way. Whatever your concern is, be clear about it before communicating it to your partner.

All you can do is give your partner information. Let them know your concerns in your best “please-pass-the-butter” tone. You don’t want to accuse; simply state what you want in the situation. They need to decide what they are going to do about it. Do not take their decision personally as it has nothing to do with you. Your partner, just like everyone else in your life, is doing the best they can to get what they want at any given moment in time. When you understand how the other person is going to be, then you can decide how you will respond.

Here is a list of some of your options:

  1. Nothing changes; everything remains the same.
  2. You keep trying to get them to do things your way.
  3. You complain to everyone who will listen about your situation.
  4. You decide to try things their
  5. You change the way you respond when the other person does what they do.
  6. You work on your internal dialogue so you can accept the way the other person is without resentment.
  7. You place boundaries around the relationship to keep yourself safe from disappointment.
  8. You mentally and emotionally vacate the relationship.
  9. You end the relationship.
  10. You find another way to get what you want.

When you stop trying to change another person and realize they have a right to think and do things the way they want, then you can be free to do what you need to do for yourself. It all begins with effective communication. Listen first to understand, share your concerns in a neutral tone, ask directly for what you would want and accept the answer you are given. Then, adjust yourself so you can get what you need in a different way.

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