Recently a reader sent me a question after reading my “Checklist for Difficult Conversations” at JudyRinger.com. She described a difficult conversation in which her daughter said some things that were hard for her to hear.
Afterwards Mom was struggling not to take her daughter’s remarks personally. The specifics aren't as important as knowing that in some way we've all been there... Words are said, feelings hurt, and we are left wondering what we did and how to respond. In this case, Mom asked me what advice or tools I could offer her so that when she did respond she would help and not make things worse.
The following is my reply. Since most of us have similar goals to hold conversations that are useful, to not take tough comments personally, and to stay grounded in purpose, I’m sharing my reply in hopes it will be helpful to many.
1) Inner Self Defense: Stay Curious
Whenever the situation turns difficult, pay particular attention to what the "Checklist" article says about curiosity. It's one of the best ways I know to not take things personally. When you listen with the goal of learning about your daughter’s experience and view, you will start to understand that the adjectives she uses describe what's true for her and not "The Truth." It doesn't mean you had an intention to be disrespectful or any of the other adjectives she uses. And you will become even more curious to learn what actions triggered her feelings.
2) The Secret Sauce: Acknowledgment
Because you are her mom, it's naturally hard to hear her words. And ... they are her experiences. What will foster your relationship is encouraging her to express them by listening even when you want to interrupt, and by acknowledging all you hear. Acknowledgment is the "secret sauce," because even the best communicators forget to use it. We leap right into solutions without letting the other party know we heard them.
We also want to justify our actions, as in, "I was trying to help....," or "You don't understand...," or "Try to see the situation from my point of view...." Instead, acknowledge what she says and continue to listen until your daughter feels fully heard. You might say something like, "It sounds like you were really hurt by that comment," or "I can see why you were embarrassed."
Remember that listening and acknowledging your daughter won't mean that you're going to agree with everything you hear. And ... it's important that she be able to say what's on her mind and heart. Later on, you will have an opportunity to advocate for yourself, if you choose, but don’t go there until she’s had more than enough time and space to say what she feels.
3) Your Positive Intention: Advocacy and Solutions
When you sense she's said all she wanted to, you can begin to turn the conversation toward advocacy and solutions, as in, "I'm sorry you've been embarrassed and hurt by my actions, and I'd like to do whatever I can to rebuild our relationship. What would you suggest?" Listen and build on her suggestions. Offer the positive intentions behind your behavior and ask what you might do differently next time.
Remember to center yourself periodically and return to your purpose of rebuilding the relationship so that you have a way to talk about difficulties in the future. In fact, you might start the conversation with your purpose so that it's right up front: “I really want to figure out how to be a good mother, to have a positive relationship, to go into the future together able to talk about anything. I need to learn from you how to do that.” These are my words, and you’ll find your own.
It will probably take more than one conversation for your daughter to hear your positive intent and to begin rebuilding. And I think you know it's important to start somewhere and keep learning as you go. Wishing you ....