When someone says or does something that is not aligned with your value set, what do you do? Do you speak up (possibly before thinking about the words that may emerge) and risk escalating the situation? Or do you say nothing and, through your silence, risk affirming or reinforcing the behavior?

I’m sure that we’ve all experienced that moment where frustration or outrage bubbles up and threatens to overwhelm your ability to really hear and understand the other person’s point of view. I tend to feel emotions much more strongly than most people may realize. An almost daily challenge for me is to make myself pause and reflect instead of reacting emotionally at that moment.

Moving toward a more effective approach to working together means pausing to truly understand what the other party is saying. Others won’t hear you until they feel they have been heard, and to hear them, one must stop, set aside the swirling thoughts in your mind, and focus intently and intentionally on what is being expressed. This act of careful listening functions on two levels: the actual words being said, and the content that is not being said with words. Body language, motivations that underly particular points of view, and unstated inherent biases also drive content that exists outside of just the words we use.

Who am I speaking to with these comments? I’m really capturing my own reflections about myself and sharing them because someone may find my own struggles useful. Daily, I remind myself of Stephen R. Covey’s Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Whenever I forget this, things don’t go the way I expect them to go!

This theme of reacting versus responding touches on several concerns, including:

  • Validating the person speaking, even when we don’t agree with what they are saying.
  • Hearing the person without judging, listening without labeling.
  • Showing empathy, being considerate, showing respect.
  • Understanding our own inherent biases, being in touch with our own feelings and emotional drivers.
  • Seeking positive outcomes for all.

These links expand on these thoughts for those who wish to explore reacting vs. responding:

What I’ve written so far is from the perspective of one human who wants to do a better job responding. What if you’re the person who feels disrespected, devalued, unheard, and you are in an emotional frame of mind? The same ideas apply: pause, listen to the other person instead of to the drumbeat in your mind, try to understand what is truly being said, and then pause again to think so that you can respond thoughtfully instead of reacting emotionally. You may not realize that the other person didn’t mean what you think you heard. Finding common ground requires that the people involved be able to hear and understand each other.

Let me close by saying that I know how hard it can be to pause, take a deep breath, count to ten, etc. When someone pushes your buttons, reacting emotionally is part of our DNA. People push my buttons every day, sometimes on purpose, sometimes unintentionally. My daily challenge is thinking through a response instead of reacting in the heat of that moment. I try to keep my eyes on the horizon and remember some of the important long-term outcomes for our Association: stronger relationships, a better understanding of each other, more engagement, and more effective pathways forward.

Here’s the last link in this missive. If you read no other link, try this one. It provides a succinct set of steps to help you respond thoughtfully instead of reacting emotionally:

Slowing down and pausing after someone speaks would be an effective habit to cultivate throughout our community. Giving them time to complete their thought and giving yourself time to think about what you heard will undoubtedly result in better communication. That’s a habit I am trying to grow in my own behaviors.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts, so do feel free to respond!

Thank you,

Tom Salzer, Executive Director