Connecting Across Differences is a podcast by Dian Killian, Ph.D. of Work Collaboratively about having greater empathy for yourself and others, and how to hear others more deeply and make sure that you’ve been heard.
Listen to Episode 1:
In the first episode, Dian focuses on key principles from her book, Urban Empathy, that can make a difference for you in your life and in your relationships. Urban Empathy is a book of illustrated actual verbatim stories set in New York City that show how outcomes can be radically different when we learn to listen deeply to others.
This episode highlights the importance of making “clean” and clear observations when talking to others, especially when we’re wanting to discuss a concern with them. To illustrate making clean and clear observations, Dian uses the story “The Shower Curtain Saga” from her book Urban Empathy as an example. If you have a copy of Urban Empathy, you can follow along on page 20.
Clear Observations Help You Avoid Confusion and Conflict
In the story, Dian decides to be vulnerable and makes a request of her partner to be mindful of leaving the shower curtain “open” after taking a shower. Her partner agrees and Dian views the conversation as a success. That is, until the next time her partner takes a shower and leaves the shower curtain crumpled up in the same position that was previously frustrating Dian.
After a few more recurrences, Dian starts to think that her partner doesn’t love her enough to follow through with her request and starts to get pretty upset. The next time Dian confronts her partner about the shower curtain, it’s more volatile than vulnerable. Dian’s partner is caught off guard saying, “What do you mean?? I’ve been opening it! Just like you said. Open like a door. See? You can pass through.”
It was in that moment that Dian realized that her partner had a completely different understanding of what it meant to leave the shower curtain open and that she hadn’t made a clear request– or given a clear observation when asking that she leave it “open.” To Dian, “open” meant that the curtain was fully spread out so it could dry. To her partner, “open” meant, scrunched up to the side so that air could flow into the shower stall.
What Dian could have said to be as clear as possible is something like, “Can you extend the shower curtain like it’s an accordion so that you can’t see into the shower stall. This way the shower curtain will have air contact and will be able to dry out.” Dian realizes from this experience that the word “open” can mean different things to different people. Arguments often start over something this simple because we *think* we’re making it really clear and the other person agrees but we’re actually thinking about two different things at the same time.
How do you come up with an observation?
There are a few key elements in coming up with an observation so that it is free of evaluation or judgment. To come up with a clear observation, we want to just know the facts. If you imagine you have a camcorder, what would the camcorder record? What would actually be in that video camera footage? That will give you the observation.
If you listen to the first episode of the Connecting Across Differences podcast, Dian uses another example of forming a clear observation by using a trick called PLATO. You can listen to the episode by pressing play on the player at the top of this blog post.
Why is it important to keep evaluation and judgment out of your observation?
Well, do YOU like hearing judgments from other people? For example, if someone were to say to you “Geez you’re always so difficult!” How much space would you really have to hear their concern? If we can instead share with the person what we’ve actually observed it’s going to be far easier for them to hear our concerns.
Usually, when we have a judgment, we’re generalizing using adverbs like “always”, “never”, “too much”, or “often”.
“You’re always late.” Is a common observation you hear. That is considered an evaluation rather than an observation. In this case, what would be captured in the camcorder? The camcorder shows us this observation: The last four times you’ve met with this person, they’ve arrived 10-20 minutes after the time you initially agreed to meet.
While it still may be challenging for the other person to hear an observation, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to hear an observation free of judgment rather than hearing “UGH! You’re ALWAYS late!”
People pay attention to our tone of voice and body language just as closely to the words we’re using. Our tone of voice and body language really communicates a lot about our intention and how we’re feeling about the situation.
See if you can self connect sufficiently before communicating your concerns with someone else so that if you are angry or upset, you’re self-connected enough that you can be in choice about how you present your concern with the other person and hopefully present it in a neutral way that is open and has some relaxation to it so the other person can hear your concern as easily as possible.
It’s really easy for us to globalize when we’re upset, angry, blaming someone else. Globalizing is when we make generalizations—using words like “always” and “never” or “everyone” or “all the time.” Observations help create shared realities with people that we’re speaking with and make our feedback specific to what’s happening right now. They can also help us gain perspective on a situation.
The next time you notice that you’re globalizing, it’s okay, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s an opportunity to pay attention and to see what choice you want to make next. If you’re globalizing, maybe you’d like to take that as an opportunity to pay attention to what’s actually happening, right now.
Telling someone what you heard is an easy way to express an observation. For example: “I just heard you say _______. Is that accurate?” This phrase allows you to take responsibility for what you’ve heard.
Rather than, “You said ______”. This phrase can be interpreted more as blame.
Now I want you to reflect on your life and the kinds of conversations and connections that you have with people you care about. Reflect on the last time you had an argument or a misunderstanding with someone. Do you think both people were on the same page about what happened? Was one person globalizing? Maybe one person (or both people) were making evaluations or judgments about what happened.
How do you think it would be helpful if one or both parties were able to come up with an observation that is free of judgment or blame? How do you think it would be easier for you to speak up and say something if you could give a clear observation about what happened? Often we have trouble speaking up and sharing our concerns in part because we’ve experienced push back from the other person or we’re afraid about how it will impact our relationship.
Think of a situation where you would like to speak up about a concern that you have at work or at home. What observation can you come up with about what you’ve seen or what you’ve heard? What would the camcorder capture for you?
This week, after you take a situation that you find challenging, come up with a clear observation about it and post your observation on the Work Collaboratively Facebook Page.
You can subscribe to the Connecting Across Differences podcast on iTunes. Also, feel free to leave a review on iTunes if you enjoyed this episode!