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Have you ever said or done something and the other person with you reacts more strongly or differently than you might have expected?  Perhaps you mention to your friend that you are going to be a few minutes late for tomorrow’s luncheon.  You receive a harsh comeback when you had not anticipated a problem with your intentions.

Four Components to a Conversation
As Newton’s law teaches us, every action has a re-action.  The re-action we have to someone’s actions is generally based on a few variables: our concerns, our expectations, our relationships and our personal anxiety levels.  In truth, there are always four components to a conversation – the speaker’s words, the speaker’s intent, the listener’s reaction, and the listener’s response, be it verbal or otherwise.  So much can go wrong with so many uncontrolled variables, it’s no wonder there is so much misunderstanding that often leads to anger and frustration.

Let’s take a closer look at the example I mentioned earlier.

Suppose you are meeting Laura at a community luncheon that takes place once a month.  You realize that you need to run an errand that would cause you to be a few minutes late, but you aren’t concerned since you have already paid, and having been to these luncheons before, know there is plenty of seating.  You casually mention to Laura that you will see her at the center tomorrow but will be about ten minutes.  Laura, to your surprise, lashes out at you stating “How could you do this? I had rearranged my schedule to be on time.”  Unbeknownst to you, Laura is not comfortable at these luncheons and counts on you to ease the way by walking in together.

Some people, especially those who are prone to challenges in regulating their emotional reactions (i.e. people with ADHD and/or Executive Function Disorder), may be especially quick to judge what they perceive and act on their beliefs or assumptions without much thought or investigation.  This can impact how they communicate, and how they respond to other’s communications.

Preventing Harsh Interactions
In the above example, there were really two opportunities to have prevented a harsh interaction.

  1. First, the more we can be mindful to speak with the listener in mind, the more we can set the stage to be heard more clearly and accurately.  By pausing before speaking, we can adjust our tone, or perhaps preface what we say with a gentle introduction.  In the example above, you could say “I hope this doesn’t cause you a problem – if so, let’s talk, but I need to be a little late for the luncheon tomorrow.”  Even if you won’t be able to be on time, perhaps there is something you can help your friend do to be more comfortable going alone.
  2. The second opportunity lies with the listener.  Very often, when we hear something that goes against our expectations or desires, we make assumptions or judgments about the speaker’s intent.  It is crucial to consider that our assumptions are speculations, not facts.  While it is understandable that Laura might have been thrown off by your change of plans, she may have jumped to judging you as inconsiderate, inflexible, uncaring or selfish.  Her own anxiety regarding her personal comfort at the luncheon may have clouded her judgment about you.  If Laura had taken just a moment to pause and think, instead of her harsh reply that created an “offense-defense” interaction, she may have posed a question that at a minimum, would have given her friend the benefit of the doubt and more possibly set in motion something that would have helped Laura with her actual concern – going to the luncheon alone.  Perhaps she could have asked a question to see if you were aware of how she felt, or if you could adjust your plans, or if she knew someone else going to the luncheon that she could walk in with.

A Simple Technique
Children often have an especially difficult time pausing and thinking about the other person’s concerns and intentions.  This can create tremendous conflict and tension both at home and in social settings.  You can teach them this simple technique: Question Before Judging.

  • Are you sure you understood what the person meant by what they said?
  • Is there possibly another explanation as to why the person said what they said?
  • Is there more information you want to have before you form your conclusion about the communicator’s intention?
  • Is there perhaps some information you feel you should share that might impact or change what the communicator is planning or reacting to?

Some lessons can be learned in the moment and some lessons are often best learned after the fact, after a situation has calmed down.  But if you have a signal with your child that means Question Before Judging such as simply saying “QBJ” or pointing to your brain with a questioning expression, you might help your child pause enough to change the course of their interaction.