Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Tip # 93:

“Men and fish are alike. They both get into trouble when they open their mouths.” 

Author Unknown

Sometimes I get overly sensitive and take to heart whatever others say. I try not to offend others, and I’ll will hold back from saying things I think might be hurtful. For the most part choosing to not say whatever I happen to be thinking at an upsetting moment is a good thing. There are those times I should have spoken up. But overall, it’s prudent to discern what one might rashly blurt out before doing so. Too often impulsive petty and/or possibly hurtful thoughts are best restrained. If it wasn’t going to be helpful it serves no purpose. When I take time to think these situations out with a clear mind I am glad. This is why many subscribe to the “count to ten before speaking” rule.

A useful technique to diminish one’s own reactivity is by addressing ourselves in the third person. Before judging ourselves on how we could or should act and thus ratchet up our reactivity, use this third person technique. Thinking in the third person will lower our reactivity, and improves our capacity for making better decisions.

Don thinks this…” or “Don wants to do …” lowers my heart rate and calms me down. Seems corny but it actually works. It’s a great improvement from what happens with, “How could I have done such and such?” By changing to, “How could Don have done such and such?” we allow for some emotional distance, thus construct the greater likelihood of an objective result.

Talk, in general, often proves to be highly over-rated. We are most often committed to being RIGHT. This pursuit for rightness requires we make the other person WRONG. Words are powerful tools that either serve us to do well or to do harm. When it comes to our relationships a better paradigm than being RIGHT is being closeness and intimacy.

Talk is never as effective as our positive action(s) are. We preach much more effectively via our actions. Abusive men will often tell their wives how remorseful and sorry they are. They very likely mean this, and make great promises to not harm again. However, their repeated abusive behaviors speak more loudly than any words.

Bert Hellinger, the famous German psychologist and founder of Systemic Family Constellations, once told a group of couples in a training program what he thought about couples and their long, heated discussions that often end in escalating fights. He said:

“I’ll tell you something about so-called discussions between partners. What are discussions supposed to achieve? Mostly, one person wants a discussion in order to convince the other person to believe something he or she doesn’t believe. That’s always a waste of time. Let him have his opinion. Yours isn’t any better; it’s only different.”

There are those times one must speak up; to not do so is wrong and cowardly. To not speak up is to be complicit with the wrong doers. It does take courage to speak. Whistle blowers, as we know, often pay a great price, but there is also a price for not speaking up.   

When speaking say your truth in “short and succinct” ways. Less tends to be better. State your facts while keeping emotion out of it. Listeners get lost with long monologues, or tangential information. This was humorously conveyed in the classic movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Steven Martin’s character, at one point has become thoroughly exasperated, and at which point he brutality blasts John Candy’s character with the following:

“And another thing, when you tell a story, make sure you have a point to it; it makes it more interesting to the listener!”

Psychologists tell us 7% of the words, 38% of our tone of voice, and 45% of our nonverbal cues make up the total communication we transmit. If we take only the words in to account – the content – we’ll miss much of what is being communicated. Ask me if I want to do something, and I reply “yes,” while at the same time I roll my eyes toward the ceiling, or I keep moving my head from left to right, or I say “yes” but do it in a weak or iffy voice, which part of my message are you to trust? At best my response is highly ambivalent or incongruent.

Mirroring is a valuable skill and easily employed. When practice mirroring – stating back to the speaker what we just heard – they get an experience of being listened to. It is important to use a calm voice when mirroring. To do so we must BE calm.

An experiment was conducted with waiters: Half were told to use positive reinforcement, and to lavish praise and encouragement on their patrons by using words like “great,” “no problem,” and “sure,” in response to their patrons. The other group of waiters were instructed to simply mirror back the last three or four words patrons said to them. Mirror back – and then go about their job. “Bring you more bread,” or “You need more water,” or “You’re enjoying your meal.” The results were stunning: the wait staff that mirrored their patrons received 70% more in tips than those who used positive reinforcement.

Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, wrote a book entitled; Never Split The Difference. Hostage negotiators must remain calm throughout any hostage situation as real peoples’ lives are at stake. Hostage takers are also not the nicest people, and are often aggressive and antagonistic.

Voss teaches negotiators is to stay calm and to not treat the conflict as some sort of pissing contest? If we make our conflicts into a battle of wills, we will not calm anyone down. Remaining calm applies to all our everyday relationships: the boss, neighbors, siblings, spouses, or anyone we’re in some disagreement with. The professional negotiator is trained to use mirroring precisely to give the hostage taker a sense of being understood, which enhances the possibility for greater calm, which fosters a better outcome.

I teach mirroring to couples. It gives each one an experience of being listened to and getting them to cool down. They’re able to avert a disastrous result and instead forge a transformative solution. Professional hostage negotiators use mirroring for these very same reasons. The science backs up how mirroring helps calm down highly anxious situations. This goes a long way toward building a rapport necessary for fostering a positive and nonviolent solution.

Trouble starts when we metaphorically take the bait and we become reactive. Right now we are living in a highly reactive society. We are in great need of healing our nation. Healing requires learning to speak and to listen to those we don’t agree with or even like. Professional negotiators, arbitrators and other mediators can teach us much.

When we’re overwhelmed we’re not capable of listening or of listening well. Negotiators are trained to listen to figure out what it is the hostage-taker actually wants. They refrain from making assumptions. Their interest is to make, say, a bank robber, feel safe so they are unlikely to do rash or dangerous things. Effective negotiators start by validating their adversary’s emotions, not as approval for robbery or hostage taking. They do so to acknowledge that this adversary is someone who is perhaps worried, or frightened, and therefore unable to cooperate. Validating takes time; it requires intentionally slowing things down so the hostage taker talks freely within an atmosphere the negotiator provides in order to obtain important information.

Slow…. It…. Down.

Learning to listen is an acquired and valuable skill. Most of us don’t listen very well. If we focus on our intended goals: to get our relationships to work more amicably; to bring about a more united nation; to get the hostages out safely; etc. Through listening we figure out what people are saying, as well as, not saying, what it is they really want, what’s most important to them.

Good professional negotiators go into the hostage situation ready for possible surprises; great ones go in prepared to use their skills to reveal the surprises they are certain to find. If we view our conflict as a battle field we’ll soon find ourselves overwhelmed. All the inner voices in our heads will blur with all the external noise and chaos. Instead of seeing it as a battle; see it as an opportunity to gain information that may bring about a positive outcome.

Trained negotiators put a smile on their face even when they’re only talking on the phone because they know their smile will make for a positive frame of mind. A positive frame of mind facilitates for them a greater capacity to think more quickly, and allows for more of a likelihood of problem-solving in the situation before them. Positivity creates mental agility in both you and your counterpart.

In the wonderful movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s the scene where the lead character, Toula Portokalos, played by actress Nia Vardalos, wants to use her new computer training to work outside the family restaurant. Her mother and her Aunt Voula are on board, but they know Cosmos, Tula’s over protective father won’t be keen having his daughter out in the work world. So Toula’s mother and her aunt devise a plan to have Cosmos not only come up with their plan, but to have him think it is his own. Mother and aunt tell Cosmos the aunt’s businesses are suffering and that she needs more help, but doesn’t know where to find it. Then both mother and aunt pause and remain quiet in a contrived helplessness. And sure enough Cosmos comes up with the solution. Excitedly he tells them:

“I have the solution for you! We send Tulia to the Voula’s business to help her! There.” Mother and aunt exclaim how brilliant Cosmos is by his solution, when in actuality it is they who are the brilliant ones getting Cosmos to think the solution is his own.

Hostage negotiators, and intelligent adults who are capable of not needing to take credit for a positive outcome. Therefore they have a much greater chance of gaining workable solutions. Professional negotiators also use the open-ended question. They call it Calibrated Questions. The questions are useful to get the other person engaged in solving your problem without you needing to become conflictual. Tulia’s mother and her aunt did this very technique with Cosmos.

Success comes to those willing to change their minds or adapt. Albert Einstein said it this way: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

We’ll need to cool down the intensely polarizing conversation permeating our nation. We’ll also need to cool down planet Earth. There is much more than just metaphor in this. I, therefore, return to a perspective I have lobbied for many previous times. In order for humankind to evolve we’ll need a great capacity for living contemplative lives.

Socrates put it this way, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” By slowing down, surrendering, and listening to our Creator, can we purge ourselves and open ourselves up to new ideas, perceptions, beliefs, understanding and values?

We’ll have a greater chance for success when we can see beyond our faulty thinking that salvation is merely an individual escape plan for the next world. Contemplative prayer allows God to transform us through great love and great suffering. It also fosters new understanding as to our inherent connectedness. It liberates us from thinking that somehow we are separate from everyone and everything else, including God. We are, indeed, all in this together.  

It turns out this is actually very Good News.