We all have those painful moments when our words and actions don’t match.
Word Count: 581
Reading Time: 2.5 minutes
“If I look away when you’re talking to me, it’s because I get overloaded. If I try to take in everything that’s coming through my 5 senses, it causes a train wreck in my brain. I look away so I can listen. Sometimes I’ll have to stop you. Please know I want to hear what you have to say.”
That’s how Tony introduced himself to me, and I was so glad he did. It saved me the embarrassment of reacting when he stared off into the distance or abruptly changed topics, and the awkwardness of asking about the effects of his brain injury. It did something much more profound: It made me his ally. Now that I knew how his brain worked, it was natural to adjust my delivery to the way he took in information, and to check in as we went.
There are times we all need to do what Tony did to make the conversation a success. I’m talking about the times our words and behaviors don’t match. Rather than become a stiff, off-putting technique geek, do what Tony did: Confess to the behaviors that get in the way, and invite others to help you.
When I’m pressed for time, I do things that aren’t pretty. When I’m hooked, I do things that are just awful. When I’m excited about something, I can be obnoxious. Anxiety can turn me into a self-centered jerk. No matter how much I want to listen, I interrupt. I talk over people, or barely let them finish their sentences. I get overly intense. I pontificate. I get snarky. I over-react. I subvert my own processes.
My actions say “shut up,” even as my words say “I’m listening.” As the research confirms, when the words and actions don’t match, we “listen” to the actions.
The Tony Solution
When I catch myself doing the things that say “shut up,” I’ve learned to stop myself. When I can, I align my words and actions. When I can’t, I confess to the mismatch progressively, like this:
1. “I’m interrupting you (talking too much, being a jerk, etc.). I’m so sorry. I get this way when I’m (anxious, excited, hooked, etc.). I’m going to stop doing that if I can.” That usually does it. When it doesn’t, I go to the next step and say,
2. “I can’t seem to stop doing this. How is it for you that I’m (interrupting, etc.)?” Asking for feedback can’t help me reset. On rare occasions I find that what I’m doing isn’t the problem I thought it was. I still will do what I can to align my words and actions if I feel out of control. If all else fails, I do this:
3. “I can’t listen right now. Can you listen to me first? Then I promise to return the favor.”
Best of all is when I can let people know I may need their help beforehand: “I’m angry about this. I may get feisty. If that starts getting in our way, please ask me what I’m anxious about. That usually does it.”
This is Not an Excuse for Bad Behavior
There is a vast difference between asking others to excuse disruptive actions we have no intention of changing and making them our allies while we take full responsibility for managing our behavior. Tony skillfully navigated his limited options. Let’s make him proud.