in his highly successful work, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann described how our brains work using two systems. A fast intuitive System 1 and a slow, rational System 2. In combination they work to help us navigate the world and stay alive.
The challenge is that System 2 is very energy expensive to run. As a result we make many decisions, below our level of consciousness with System 1. So far so good.
Unfortunately, System 1 is vulnerable to cognitive biases. We can use System 1 to create a story about what is happening and how we feel which may be based on biases. We then compound the problem by using System 2 to rationalise the 'emotional' decision we have made.
In conflict, people feel under attack and often find it difficult to engage System 2. It feels comfortable to rely on their System 1 intuitions and biases. There are ways to de-bias ourselves:
In and earlier post, I had recommended "How Emotions Are Made" by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She describes the Theory of Constructed Emotion, in which our brains predict what we need to do based on information they receive, models they have made and our past experience.
This seems counter intuitive. How can our emotions be constructed by us? when we feel as if we are reacting to what is happening around us? How can we be responsible for the distress and pain when the other person's behaviour has caused it?
These ideas can be challenging to accept. One way to think about it is considering how we feel based on the same stimulus. For example, imagine you are driving along a quiet road when out of nowhere a sports car swerves in front of you and disappears into the distance. How do you feel? Now imagine that instead of a sports car that was an ambulance? same stimulus but different emotional reaction. We are not passive receptors of emotion, we actively construct how we feel.
If you are heading into a difficult conversation, then you can help yourself by constructing more helpful emotions. For example, rather than feeling the tightness in your stomach and deciding that you are anxious and worried, tell yourself that you are excited. If you are excited the chances are that you will perform better than if you are anxious.
Communication is challenging at the best of times. In a difficult conversation it can become impossible. Whilst there are many skills which can improve communication, there are two which I would like to focus on for this series, this week: acknowledgment.
Acknowledgement is a quiet superpower. We can all think of times when we were communicating something emotional / difficult and where we were acknowledged by the other person. It makes us feel heard, as if they understand what we are trying to communicate. it creates a sense of connection and rapport. In a difficult conversation, it can seem counterintuitive (or even impossible) to create rapport, however, the chances of creating a learning conversation are enhanced if the other person does not feel under attack. If we want to have a constructive conversation rather than a chance to blame / judge then one step is to acknowledge the other person's feelings.
Acknowledgement does not mean agreeing with everything they are saying, or agreeing that we are fault. However, it is a way of acknowledging that we have heard the underlying emotional content of their communication and that we accept this is how they feel.
Acknowledgments do not need to be lengthy or complicated. A simple statement such as "I can hear that you are ..." / "It sounds like..." can start to build the bridge of communication. If you are mistaken and the emotion is not correct, they will tell you. That's great - keep trying. I use acknowledgment in mediation all the time to let the person speaking how that I have received the message. You can see people visibly relax when they feel that you are trying to understand them and acknowledge how they feel.
Reframing is a tool we can use with the statements of others and also ourselves. Why would we reframe ourselves? For many of the same reasons as we use reframing with others:
start with the behaviour or the event - describe it factually without blame
describe the impact on you
"I would prefer if..."
your preferred outcome / needs / change to future focus
"This would work for both of us because..."
positive consequences for both
No tool can guarantee a constructive conversation, but an 'I' statement creates the possibility of one.
When I read about reframing, it is often a relatively upbeat article that suggests we can reframe negative statements into positive statements to resolve conflict. However, I would urge some caution. Reframing requires practice. It is much easier to reframe a statement into a neutral statement rather than a positive statement.
This is because, reframes fail when they do not capture the essence or truth of what has been said. A botched reframe may increase negativity as it may seem as if you are minimising or wilfully ignoring the other person's statement.
How can you do a reframe which will help rather than hinder?