In the highly acclaimed book entitled Boundaries the authors tell us that if we, as listeners, practice “containment” the other parent will be less reactive, but they give us no practical techniques for learning how to “contain” when we’re trying to listen to an angry, demanding or demeaning person. Here’s what they say:
“If a person feels her perspective is heard and understood without evaluation or judgment she often becomes less reactive. This may also require that you not only listen to her viewpoint, but also hear her negative emotions, such as anger at you or disappointment in you. When you can be with her and her emotions without reacting yourself, you help her bear them and process them. Helping a person deal with her emotions by being there, hearing them and not reacting, is called containment. Bear in mind that listening and containing do not mean agreeing. Your task is simply to help her be heard on an emotional level. When people do not contain, the conversation’s process may be hampered, as the other person feels negated or discounted. Listening and containing require us temporarily to shed our own point of view and self-interest to connect with the other person’s heart. It is the ability to identify with another’s pain and experience….Containing does not mean, however, that you should allow yourself to be emotionally injured by the person. When you confront a defensive person about a problem, one thing he will try to do is to find another source for the issue. This often means that he will attack you. However, do not discount what you are hearing because it is coming from an attacking person. Rather, listen and reflect on what you’re hearing to determine whether it is true. If you’re making the problem worse, you will want to know that. Further even if you are not being blamed, take the initiative to search out whether you were provoking the problem.” Pages 154+, Boundaries ©2003 Henry Cloud and John Townsend. (Zondervan)
After listening to hundreds of parents share how difficult it is to listen to the other parent who is angry, demanding or demeaning, without reacting in anger and responding to set the record straight, I recalled an applicable technique that I read in a book on negotiation by Gerry Spence. Here it is:
“The Spanish matadors have a phrase for dealing with the onslaught of the beast – “Ver Llegar.” [Author Earnest] Hemingway explained the meaning of the phrase in Death in the Afternoon: ‘the ability to watch the bull, as he charges with no thought except to calmly see what he is doing and make the moves necessary to the maneuver you have in mind. To calmly watch the bull come is the most necessary and primarily difficult thing in bullfighting.’ So it is when one faces a charging Other, a judge, an opponent, a witness, a boss. By sheer concentration one watches the charge calmly with one’s ears. If we choose, we can observe the Other’s aggression come spewing out, and, at our will, we can also permit the noise to bounce off the walls like rattling cans.” Page 70, How to Argue and Win Every Time, ©1995 Gerry Spence, St. Martin’s Press.
When the matador fails to pay total attention to the “onslaught of the beast”– lacks total and complete concentration, and instead thinks about what action he must take as the bull charges him, that’s when the matador gets gored. In essence Spence is telling us to be matadors when the other parent charges at us like a bull. He reminds us to listen to understand, instead of listening to respond. A listener’s brain processes what it hears several times faster than a person speaks. Repeat what you think you hear and/or ask questions to clarify what you think you hear. Then listen for their confirmation/clarification, before you respond. That gives your brain even more time to come up with the right—not the knee-jerk—response. Or you can promise to call them right back after thinking it over.
Gerry Spence, a Wyoming trial lawyer, conducted a national law practice, trying and winning some of America’s most famous cases including the Karen Silkwood case which was made into a movie. He learned that successful argument begins with self-discovery and personal growth. Visit his website at www.gerryspence.com