GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Transforming Conversations by Ben E. Benjamin, Ph.D., co-author of "Conversation Transformation: Recognize and Overcome the 6 Most Destructive Communication Patterns."
Everyone has them, usually multiple times a day - conversations that don’t exactly go as planned.
Whether the other person doesn’t understand exactly what you are trying to communicate, or the overall tone of the conversation results in unintended yet palpable friction, bad things happen when dialogues take a dive. Relationships are ruined, jobs are lost, and both parties are left suffering as a result.
The sad truth in many cases is that the mistake that resulted in the conversation’s downfall could have been easily avoided.
While there are countless instances where we find ourselves in need of better communication skills, there are six patterns that tend to be the most common among people in a variety of relationships. Two of the most common are Yes-Buts and Mind- Reading.
The “Yes-But” Conversation
The “Yes-But” statement has two parts. First is the “yes” portion- a token agreement with the person that you are speaking with. This is followed by a “but” which expresses an idea contrary to the initial one that was expressed.
Most people use this strategy in order to “soften the blow” in instances where they disagree (I like your tie, but…). In theory, it seems like a good way to verbalize a differing opinion without hurting the other party’s feelings. However, these interactions send mixed messages - delivering both a “yes” and “no” in a single sentence makes the idea difficult for the listening party’s brain to process, without necessarily making the comment feel “nicer” as may have been intended. Usually, people only hear the “but” whenever this strategy is used.
“Yes-But” discussions also tend to create new conflicts and disagreements. Take the following conversation between Rob and Amanda. Rob: “I’m not trying to pressure you, I’m just feeling this distance between us that I don’t know how to handle.” Amanda: “I feel distance too but I don’t think you understand how I’m feeling.” Even though topics are both relevant (Rob “feeling distant” and Amanda’s feeling misunderstood) are important, the use of the “Yes… But” essentially drew a line in the sand, and encourages Rob to defensively say something like “I do understand, but…” The Yes-Buts get both participants spiraling away from processing what each other is really wanting to be heard about.
Whenever a person states their assumptions about another person, and presents them as though they’re facts, they are participating in another negative conversation pattern, mind-reading. When we treat mind-reads as facts, we are essentially basing our relationships on speculations, wishes, and fears rather than reality. Some mind-reads can be harmless (“You’re in a good mood today”) however, many mind-reads can be dangerous and cause unnecessary conflicts. (“You’ve never wanted to get married, liked my work, planned to give me a raise, wanted me to succeed”, etc.)
Mind-reads can often be irritating. For example, it can be extremely annoying when you’re having a conversation with someone who implies that they know you better than you know yourself.
“You don’t really mean that” or “you don’t realize how burnt out you are”
Real problems arise when mind-reads are used as weapons. While mind-reads often have a relatively neutral tone, and sound like a statement of fact, there are instances where they can take on a much more personal and hostile tone.
“She thinks that she’s better than everybody else”
“My doctor doesn’t really care about me”
How to avoid these negative patterns?
First, be aware of unproductive communication habits as they are happening, and “righting the ship” before a conversation goes awry. Action is the next step- that is, using specific new strategies to turn the conversation in a better direction. Lastly, practice. The only way to overcome these bad habits is to practice the new patterns until they become your new responses. Better habits will eventually become second nature.
So next time you find yourself in a conversation that appears to be headed in the wrong direction, try to identify which part of the interaction is actually failing, and do your best to rectify it. As your awareness of these negative patterns increases, you will begin to notice that your conversations are becoming more effective and productive.