We all know that communication is key when it comes to building and sustaining relationships. Yet that knowledge alone isn’t sufficient to establish an open and mutually beneficial approach to conversations.
Because, let’s face it, it can be challenging to communicate when we feel emotionally threatened or when our beliefs are being challenged. We can all make the mistake of listening to respond rather than listening to understand. And we all can respond in ways that have the unindented effect of shutting down a conversation.
Much of the time, these maladaptive responses are not ill-intentioned. Instead, they often come from a place of self-preservation or a lack of attention. Like with any behavior, these reactions can become ingrained. And like with any habit, the first step to changing it is in recognizing it.
Ten responses that immediately shut down a conversation…
1 – One-Upping
The intention here is usually a good one, an attempt to share a similar experience in an attempt to express camaraderie and understanding. Yet when this analogous experience is shared too soon or expressed in such a way that makes it seem as though there is a competition, it has the opposite effect. Instead of immediately going into the details of your similar history, consider using your personal knowledge to ask the important questions or share relevant and potentially helpful information. Alternately, you can say, “I’ve experienced something similar. Would you like to hear the specifics?”
2 – Minimizing or Dismissing
There is a delicate balance between acknowledging somebody’s feelings and enabling their wallowing in those feelings. It may feel helpful to tell somebody that their situation “Isn’t that bad” or that they have “No reason to feel that way.” It can seem like a sort of verbal pat on the back, a message that they can handle this. And even though you may very well be right and they may be overwhelmed and overly pessimistic in the moment, minimizing their feelings will not help them move forward.
3 – At Least…
This is a form of minimization where you point out the positives before the person is ready to contemplate them. I heard this quite a bit in the early weeks after my ex’s disappearance. “At least you didn’t have kids.” “At least you have a job.” “At least he didn’t kill you.” And even though those were all very real and valid statements, I couldn’t hear them at that moment. This is one of those situations where the slightest turn of phrase can make quite a difference. Instead of “At least,” which implies it’s not that bad (and assumes that they also place value in what you do), try saying, “It’s good that…”
4 – Redirecting
Conversations rarely operate like a movie on Netflix, where you can push the pause button or change the channel and pick up where you left off. When you change the subject or interject with a joke or off-topic comment, you may be inadvertently communicating that this conversation is not important to you. Sometimes this interjection is done to introduce some levity into a serious talk or to shift gears when the discourse has veered into unproductive territory. These types of redirections can be positive as long as they’re undertaken with care and intention.
5 – Beginning With Your Foot Down
Boundaries are important. And so is an open mind. When you begin a conversation with your mind already made up, you are not leaving any space for the other person. In other words, it’s no longer a dialog, it’s a knock upon a door that’s been nailed shut. It’s okay to say “No, I don’t agree” and it’s also okay to listen first. When you start a conversation with your foot down and no room to budge, views have a tendency to become even more diametrically opposed instead of landing on some common ground.
6 – Believing the Other Person is Wrong
Unless you’re talking to somebody who is insisting that 2 + 2 is 6, it’s rare that conversational viewpoints are so clearly incorrect. (And even then, I would be curious to learn why somebody believes that 2 + 2 is 6. I may just learn something.) I have found that curiosity leads to better conversations that judgment. Even when somebody is expressing something that goes against my personal beliefs, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. They simply have a different view. And that is okay.
7 – Trying to Fix Things
Stereotypically, men are the ones who respond to everything with a ready solution, even when their opinion on a resolution isn’t requested. But this reaction is not limited to men. Women are just as likely to try to solve every expressed problem, even when it’s nothing more than an observation or a venting session. There are two problems with this response – you may not accurately identify the problem and by offering a solution without a request for advice, you are undermining the other person’s ability to take care of their own business.
8 – Responding With Absolutes
“You always…” “You never…” Those phrases are rarely true. Even the biggest procrastinator sometimes comes in before a deadline. And the most passive person will sometimes stand a stand. Usually when these phrases are used, it is in an attempt to get the person to do more of the opposite. Yet, by refusing to acknowledge when the desired behavior occurs, it actually lessens the chances of it occurring. Instead, try some version of, “I noticed when you [desired behavior]. I liked that.”
9 – Overreacting
I saved my particular struggles for last. I’ve shared before about my own tendency to overreact. When a response is at a level ten, it encourages the other person to back off and avoid triggering a similar reply in the future. Overreacting can help create an environment where it isn’t “safe” to share and where one person feels the need to “protect” the other from the truth.
10 – Defensiveness
For me, this comes from my deeply internalized belief that I am what I can do for others. So, when some mistake or oversight is highlighted, I easily take that to mean that I am not enough. Ugh. A defensive response erects a wall in a middle of a conversation. When you’re busy defending, you are no longer able to listen and process new information. I’m still working on this one myself. I think a lot of it comes down to accepting the difference between somebody rejecting my idea/opinion/feelings and somebody rejecting me.
I listened to a podcast last year (Conversations With People Who Hate Me), which is a fascinating study of constructive and open dialog. The host, an outspoken liberal, often faces intense criticism from people with opposing views on his YouTube channel. Instead of internalizing these comments or ignoring them, he reached out to the posters and invited them onto his show.
And here’s the really impressive part – at least to me – he talks to them with NO defensiveness and NO preconceived ideas. He asks questions and listens to their responses. He’s not afraid to voice his disagreement, but he does so in a way that doesn’t shut out the other person.
The shows are often awkward. Painful, even. Yet, more often than not, the two people who started out on opposite sides of an enormous divide, manage to find some common ground and mutual respect. It’s heartwarming, motivational and inspiring. A perfect study in how NOT to shut down a conversation.