What Do You Want to Say?
…and how do you want to say it?
Someone says something truly nasty to you. How do you respond? Do you yell at them and vent your anger? Do you say something dismissive and just walk away? Or do you ask them why they felt the need to be nasty to you?
The answer depends completely upon your answer to another WDYW question: What do you want to achieve with your response?
The Question Less Considered
That question, what do you want to achieve, is often overlooked, not considered. In the heat of anger its easy to blurt out something equally if not even more nasty as your response. What will that achieve? It may provoke an even nastier response, some raised voices, perhaps occasional violence. In most cases, it will produce some level of escalation. Seldom is that a desired outcome.
When you stop to actively ask yourself what you want to accomplish with your response you’re following Stephen Covey’s famous second habit of highly effective people: Begin with the End in Mind!
Start at the end of the exchange. You’d like to get past this conversation with the person addressing you explaining why they felt the need to be nasty to you. That would hopefully commence a conversation that reveals why they feel negatively about you and may lead to a good resolution. So, you might respond by saying something on the order of, “Oh, that was pretty nasty. I’m sorry you felt the need to be that way toward me. What did I do to earn that?”
When they answer your question, if they do, take that opportunity to engage with them about their problem with you, and see if you can’t offer a mutually agreeable solution.
When You Need to Deliver a Difficult Message
It is likely that every one of us will face a need to give someone else information that you know will upset them. For me, the first time I remember being confronted with this challenge was when my best friend had taken a trip and was driving home. Well before he arrived, I was told that his father had passed away while he was gone.
This was before there were cellphones or mobile devices.
It immediately occurred to me that his mother, not the most sensitive of women, would likely say to him, “Your father’s dead.”
Rather than let that happen I walked over to his parking lot and waited there for a while. Eventually, his car pulled into the lot, and he found a parking spot. As he bounded out of the car feeling all pumped up about his trip and anxious to tell me all about it, he greeted me with, “Hey, partner!!!”
My instinct was to get right to it and not keep him standing there wondering what was wrong with me. So, I grabbed him by both shoulders and said, “I have to tell you something, pal. Your father has passed away. I’m so sorry.”
He became very still, and all expression left his face. We walked over to a bench, sat down, and talked for a while. We talked about his father’s illness and the fact that they knew he didn’t have much time left. It wasn’t a complete surprise, but it hurt all the same.
In retrospect, I know I wanted to tell him this bad news he needed to know, but I didn’t want to foreshadow it and build up his anxiety. I felt it best to just tell him.
This decision, in turn, was driven by my own experience losing my father. I was 15 years old and on line to get lunch at school. Suddenly, I noticed a neighbor of ours standing by the doorway. In that first instant it struck me that this wasn’t a good friend of ours, and he had no children in school. Wickedly fast I figured out why he was here. Soon, he spotted me and came over to me, asking me to come with him.
I politely said hello and then asked why I had to come with him. His response was mumbled, but something on the order of, “I need to get you home. We’ll explain when we get there.”
So I sat in the passenger seat of this relative stranger’s car for the few minutes it took to drive from the school to my home. All the way I was thinking, “One of my parents is dead.” Awfully, I began to think about which I would prefer it would be. I forced myself to go cold and sat there silently.
When I arrived home my mother greeted me at the door crying. She wailed that he’s gone, her husband is gone, my father is dead, what will she do now? I remained cold. Frozen, in fact. I knew that anything I would say would be beyond insensitive and totally pointless.
Anger is the Enemy
I have grappled with anger for my entire life. At age three and four I remember older cousins taking turns making fun of me to see who could “rag” me worse. When I began to strike back my mother told me I had to mind my elders. They were teenagers. Her admonishment shut my mouth but inspired my anger. That anger just continued to grow.
Through my education, on into my earliest employment experiences and on, that anger smoldered and grew worse. I became quite the warrior, and because I was good at it, I achieved rapid professional growth. I also alienated a large number of people. What made me succeed in business made me a failure as a human being. I would regularly let my anger make my decisions for me as to what to say. In some cases, it was my intention to get someone to leave me alone. In other cases, it was me being totally self-indulgent, much to the detriment of other people.
Since I had been practicing retort since early childhood, I was very, very effective at it.
The wonderful monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, said, “Nothing can heal anger except compassion.”
Eventually, I was introduced to the concept of true compassion. Caring for the welfare of the other in all its forms. Over time, it changed me completely.
Where once I would just blurt out the first clever, biting thing I could think of, my process is now very different. I think about what has just been said to me and consider everything I know about the person who said it. I ponder why they might have said it. What did they want to achieve by saying it? Perhaps they were just being as incautious as I always had been.
When I think about what I want to say in response, I ask myself, “What will saying this achieve? How will it be received by this person?” Buddhist mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein suggests asking yourself the question, “Is this useful?” If the answer is that it’s not useful to anyone, then don’t say it.
Goldstein’s question is valuable when making any decision about what to do or say. Why invest any time or energy into doing something that is not useful to anyone? So I frequently ask myself, “Is this useful?”
I also focus on the ‘why’ of what I’m thinking of saying. Am I saying it just to make myself feel vindicated? Or make myself feel better? That’s probably never going to achieve anything else. Am I planning to say something for the express purpose of hurting, insulting, annoying, or aggravating the other person? That, too, achieves nothing of value. Perhaps a momentary feeling better. But that’s followed by extended regret.
Learning to invoke compassion into any exchange has been a very calming experience. I no longer feel the wrangling in my gut that is produced by anger. I seldom truly get angry anymore. I no longer see the value in it. It just sets me apart from others. Borrowing again from Covey’s 7 Habits, I’m big into number five, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
To do so, I listen actively and carefully, then consider what conditions and situations contributed to what was said or done. I try to find a way to understand why the other person said or did what they said or did. In formulating a response, I work to determine if my response is for the other person, or just for me.
Becoming and remaining circumspect about yourself is a difficult practice. It takes constant self-reminders and inner discipline. It’s easily challenged. But the more circumspect you can be, the more you can come to understand how alike others are to you.
At the end of the day, I’m reminded that I’ve made a mess of many relationships, some very dear to me. I now realize that other people have the same burdens. They are probably just as regretful as me. That always inspires my compassion and leads me to seek positive outcomes.