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Learning from Our Worst Conversations: Part 2

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In Issue #109, I talked about how fear hormones can shut down the executive functions of the brain during emotionally charged conversations. The message was simple enough: Sometimes fear makes us dumber: Here, I want to offer four “antidotes” to the brain’s fear state that can raise your emotional intelligence.

EQ To The Rescue

Marriage researcher John Gottman observed: “When we compared fights between healthy couples in stable marriages with those that were in trouble, one difference stood out. The happily married couples used certain phrases and actions during an argument that kept the negativity from spiraling out of control.”

Gottman refers to these conciliatory gestures as “repair mechanisms,” and observed that they act as a glue to help hold a relationship together when things get rocky.

Here are four of my favorite emotionally intelligent repair mechanisms. Think of them as ways to talk others – as well as yourself – down from the ledges of distrust and fear.


The first time I heard an example of reframing, I had a “yeah, right” reaction: Is it a problem – or a challenge? Is it a crisis – or an opportunity? Uh huh.

Until I had a personal experience of reframing that resulted in a professional breakthrough. It happened when I stopped trying to overcome my clients’ resistance to “doing the work” and started getting interested in hearing from the part of them that wasn’t so jazzed about doing this counseling stuff. I began to actively seek out the concerns and objections of this “resistant self” in my clients.

The result? A dramatic decrease in hearing clients say “I’m too busy” or “I can’t afford it” —because we could now negotiate a plan that addressed their real objections and concerns.


Refocusing is a powerful way to defuse distrust and defensiveness.

One way to refocus is to respond only to the constructive or factual portion of the other person’s comments and edit out the nasty tone of voice, insult, or criticism that accompanies it.

John Gottman opines, “One reason some people have stable marriages may simply be that they are good at listening past the edge in their partner’s voice to the positive or at least grudgingly conciliatory message behind it. They respond to the repair mechanism rather than the bitter coating.”

You can also refocus by going in the exact opposite direction. Comment on what you’re experiencing or feeling right now: “I didn’t like it when …” or “When you said that, it hurt my feelings.”

One of the most powerful ways to refocus is to
comment about the process of communication itself:
“You keep asking me what I think, but every time I make a suggestion you say, ‘yes, but …’” or “Please let me finish,” or “We’re getting off topic.”


Refocusing can help you redirect the conversation by saying something like, “Let’s focus on what we’ve got to do next,” or “Let’s get back to how we’re going to make a decision.”

Redirect the conversation toward the positive by focusing on what you can do, not what you can’t or won’t do. Saying, “I don’t have time for this stuff!” is very different from “I can’t dedicate that much time right now. How about after lunch tomorrow?” Instead of “I’m not going to listen to this!” how about “This is very hard to hear …”


Here are my four favorite ways to replace trust-busters and with trust-builders:

Acknowledge the other person’s viewpoint before expressing your own.

“I know you like to get right to the point, and I usually want to hear all the details first, so …”

Reaffirm your basic beliefs about the relationship.

“I’ve always respected your opinion, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye on things.”

If you can’t think of anything nice to say, do this …

If you can’t think of anything nice to say in a particular situation, ask the other person: “What do you most need to hear right now?” or “What would you most like to hear me say?”

Offer sincere appreciation and praise—frequently.

Don’t assume that others (your spouse, children, co-workers, employees) know you appreciate and admire them. You need to communicate it frequently. If that’s hard for you, try author Leil Lowndes’ tip on how to compliment people indirectly:

“The only thing nicer than hearing a compliment is
it.” So “talk about people behind their back” when you’re saying nice things about them – just be sure to say it loudly it enough for them to overhear it.

It’s also worth a shot to ask for recognition. Here’s an example of how I tried this myself recently: I tend to run late for social occasions. I got tired of feeling guilty and my husband having to drive too fast to get us to events, so I put in some dedicated effort and have made noticeable improvement. However, my husband is not good at offering (or receiving) praise or compliments. The next time I got in the car, I handed him an index card and said, “Please read this out loud.” The card said, “Jan, you’re doing a really good job of getting ready to go on time. I’m so pleased and proud of you!” Here’s the funny part: I was surprised at how much I liked hearing it, even though it was scripted and “staged.

Here’s What Gives Me Hope

Social neuroscientists now believe that
the need to belong
trumps the need for safety.

That would certainly explain how we some-how get the guts to take a risk – to tell someone we love them, say we’re sorry, or ask for help.

Here’s how I think of it: Our brains may be hardwired for protection, but our hearts are hardwired for connection and relationship. That gives me hope.