This writing is excerpted from the Skills for Change Cooperative Communication course I teach online. Learn more here.
Asking for What You Want in a Hierarchy
Just because we are in a hierarchy, doesn’t mean we can’t ask for what we want. Often, leaders are happy to hear suggestions, offers, and other requests especially when the asker acknowledges the power structure.
“I know you will make a final decision that takes lots of variables into account, and I trust that you are doing your best to hold the whole while taking care of the parts. I thought if I explained my point of view and what I see, that it might help you make a more informed decision about my part of the business. And perhaps you can explain to me what contribution you’d like to see from me and my team in the coming months.”
“I know you are probably trying to keep expenses low or none while maintaining the building and the landscape, and I respect that there are lots of things you take care of that I don’t see, but get the benefit of on a daily basis. Thank you for all of your work. I’d like to share some ideas I and my roommates have for improving our apartment and hear how you usually like to see these kinds of improvements made, what works and what doesn’t work for you, and how I can be a great tenant for your apartment.”
In a meta-conversation, we talk about having the conversation before actually talking about the topic. We have a very short meta-conversation in each of the consent steps in the Clearing Held Feelings and Stories process. “Is this a good time for you to hear my held feeling? The topic is the dishes and it’s a three on a one to ten scale. I think it will take about 20 minutes.” This is a meta-conversation because if the person says no, not now, you may continue to negotiate about the conversation before you have it. “If not now, then when is a good time?” “I can talk about the dishes tomorrow night while we’re making dinner. Does that work for you?” “Yes.”
In order to avoid drive-by conversations we have meta-conversations. Drive-by conversations are when we start talking about a subject without asking if it’s a good time. “Hey the other night when you left the dishes in the sink, I did them because we had guests coming the next morning. I wonder if you are willing to consider doing your dishes at night before going to bed as a general rule? I’d rather not have to clean up after you.”
The listener might be receptive and able to roll with the conversation, or they might be doing something that requires focus, and you just interrupted something they care about doing well. A conversation that might be well-received at an agreed-upon time, may become contentious because of non-negotiated timing. In this example, we have addressed multiple meta-subjects: time, topic, intensity, and duration.
When we learn to distinguish between feelings and stories, we increase our ability to create space between our experience and our observation of our experience. This gives us an opportunity to make wise adult choices in our responses to events.
Story words that masquerade as feelings: abandoned, rejected, dismissed, unimportant, betrayed.
It’s tempting to use these words to describe our feelings about events because they are so strong. Yet they require action from another person, and thus represent our stories about the other person’s motivations rather than our feelings in response to the observable facts of the situation.
Sometimes we get a chance to share our stories with the other person and hear What’s True, What’s Not True, and What’s Also True in response. At other times, we don’t have a cooperative relationship with the person and are unable to share our stories and trust that we will be treated with compassion or given a truthful response. In such circumstances, making distinctions between our feelings about a situation and our stories about a situation can help us accept the unacceptable and our powerlessness over both our feelings and knowing the truth about the other person’s motivations.
When we get emotionally triggered, our safety system kicks off a sequence of biological responses to danger. This process prioritizes the fight-flight-freeze-tend/befriend-dissociate reactions in our body and reduces resources for non-survival systems, including our mental processes. As a result, once triggered, we often have reduced capacity for making thoughtful agreements.
I created a drawing to show how two people’s trigger sequences can create a negative fight cycle that escalates and produces angry, hurt conflict, and often takes a lot of effort to resolve. My goal was to help clients find the early markers of their trigger sequence. If we can identify ourselves starting to get triggered, we can interrupt the process, re-center, and make a different move that produces a different result. Take a look at the drawing and notice how each partner’s escalation sequence has early stages of the cycle. If we can create interventions early on, we can de-escalate, rather than escalate conflict, create a lot less harm, and require a lot less repair work in the aftermath.
When we are negotiating changes in a relationship, often people attempt to get other people to change in order to manage their own internal state. I call this “externalizing.” Unfortunately, even the successful exertion of control over others doesn’t tend to make us feel more safe. It can even make us feel less safe, because we know the other people are rescuing us and their efforts to please us aren’t coming from their own desires and needs. Eventually, uninterrupted rescue tends to become persecution, and persecution is an extremely unpleasant consequence to our desperate attempt to control how we feel.
Our boundaries are limits that when expressed constitute consent for our bodies and selves. It’s helpful for us to internalize the dignity of our boundaries. We are responsible for holding our boundaries, and we express our boundaries in conversation and actions that are natural consequences of other people’s behaviors and choices.
For example, we might say to a roommate, “When you choose to play loud music in common spaces, and I want it to be quiet, the natural consequence is that I’m not going to stay in the same room as you. If you want my company, we need to figure out a way for both of us to get what we want.” Our dignified boundary is that we’re not willing to remain in a location where the music is too loud for us. We will either ask for the music to be turned down or off, for the person to wear headphones, or we will move our bodies to a different location. Hopefully, if we’re in a cooperative relationship, the person will value our desire for quiet as important just as their desire for loud music is important.
A Lesson from Cooperative Communication: Telling Ourselves Big-Picture Stories
Here’s a sample lesson from the Cooperative Communication course. I’m posting it here to give more folks a chance to see the course materials.
If you have questions or comments, please post them below. I’m delighted to learn what you’re thinking!
Types of Stories
When we tell ourselves stories about other people, very often the story we tell ourselves revolves around ourselves and our experience. The advantage to this tactic is that we have some power over a story if we are involved. If someone’s story is all about them and their experience, we have little or no power or influence over their story. Because we are trained to avoid our feelings of powerlessness, the idea that someone’s story could have nothing to do with us may be frightening or overwhelming. Yet most people are having their own experiences and telling themselves stories that put themselves at the center of the action. When we can differentiate between our stories about ourselves (self-centric stories) and stories that are genuinely about other people (other-centric stories) we are much more likely to create a whole picture that includes everyone (a big-picture story.)