Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Breaking Through In A One-Sided Conversation

October 16, 2006

How do you deal with a mate, close relative, colleague, or friend who is forceful, overbearing, opinionated, argumentative and doesn't listen well? How do you assert your opinions without stirring troubled waters even further? What steps can you take to correct a one-sided conversation and establish clear boundaries of mutual respect?

People are different. Disagreements are normal and natural. People can bridge their differences and negotiate satisfying solutions when there is honest two-way discussion and healthy recognition of differences.

The person you are dealing with probably means well and is clueless how his or her style of communication comes across as rude, disrespectful and demoralizing. He or she doesn’t understand the harm caused by a lack of communication manners.

Adding fuel to the fire. Getting angry, counterattacking, or defending yourself creates even more conflict. That is like giving red meat to a carnivore.

Another choice seems easier - but invites trouble for yourself and the relationship. That is to shut down and emotionally withdraw or avoid the offending patty. Problems aren't solved and resentment about the unequal treatment grows. In the interest of maintaining peace and harmony you stuff feelings and give up trying to change the relationship.

A third choice is to reason and use logic. Unfortunately, the other party listens only to parts of the argument that he or she can dispute. Interruptions and counter-arguments follow and demonstrate that your point fell on deaf ears.

So what do you do? How do you get an overbearing communicator to actually pay attention, listen and change?

- Confront the issue. Have a discussion about how you feel about the lack of courtesy and respect in your conversations. First ask, "Is there anything in the way I communicate that makes discussions difficult?" It is quite likely he or she hasn’t thought much about it. If he or she has, listen intently to the answer.

Let the offending person wind down. Let him or her ventilate to their heart’s content. Ask if he or she has anything more to say. "Is there more?" Don’t try to insert any of your opinions at this point. Listen to understand. Summarize and agree where possible. Get the other person to agree that you understand his or her opinion.

Make a commitment to change what needs to be changed. You have set the stage for bringing up your issue.

- State your positive intent. Acknowledge you care about them, the issue and you want to work toward a solution.

- Make your case. Say something to the effect, "I have listened and responded to what you need. This is what I need from you so that I can feel better about our communication." Describe your perception of his or her lack of courtesy, poor listening and interruptions and the impact it has on you.

- Handling interruptions. Point out that you have the floor and that it is your turn to speak. Ask if an interruption is about a new point or something you didn't understand the first time. Give back the floor until he or she has exhausted his or her opinion. Demonstrate again your understanding and remind the other party that you would like the same courtesy of explaining yourself without interruption. Commit them to not interrupting you.

If all else fails, the way to interrupt an interruption is to say their name over and over again until they stop. You aren't going to get anywhere until you establish you have a right to the floor and can finish your thoughts without interruption.

- Be specific and give examples of what you mean. Be matter of fact. Be calm, collected and in control. Maintain eye contact. Speak with firmness. Stay on your main point. Be brief and don't overload your listener. Keep it simple. Make sure your tone of voice and body language is respectful and consistent with what you are saying.

- Use a "soft" manner of presenting your feelings. Let the other party know you understand there are two opinions, not just one "right" opinion. Let he or she know you are interested in hearing their reaction to what you are telling him or her when you are finished. Avoid extreme words like "always" and "never." Soften up your criticism by using less provocative and conditional language. "It seems to me." The way I look at it is . . ."

- Ask for a summary of your points before inviting a response. Break up your comments into small, bite-size chunks. If their summary isn't accurate, correct it and ask for another summary. Keep on correcting their summary until they get it right. If he or she gets frustrated, point out that this is one of the problems – that he or she is hearing what they want to hear and not really listening to you.

- Refuse to proceed until your overbearing communicator learns basic respect. He or she needs to recognize when you have the floor and to listen accurately to what you are saying. Refuse to engage in any one-sided conversations where your opinion isn't listened to. If his or her emotional arousal is so pronounced or if he or she is so rigid that listening doesn’t seem possible, you may have to involve a third party to help with your communication breakdown.