Have you ever noticed the sudden urge to explain yourself when someone accuses you of hurting their feelings or of wronging them in some way?
For most of us (myself included), our first thought (well maybe the second), when someone criticizes us is to explain why we did what we did and what we were thinking at the time. Doing this is a well-intentioned attempt to convince the other person that we were not mean-spirited and did not mean to do them harm so they should not be upset or angry.
The problem is that explaining ourselves 1) turns the subject of the discussion to us and our feelings and away from the feelings of the injured party and 2) is experienced by the other as defensiveness (one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, all of which are damaging to relationships).
First, if someone brings up an issue, hopefully they do so gently. Either way, the person is saying, “I’d like to talk about my feelings and needs.” To suddenly switch the focus to ourselves, before we’ve attended to their feelings, will hurt them further by our failure to attend to and attune with them. More than anything, we all want to be seen and heard by those we find significant in our lives. So here’s a metaphor:
If you’ve driven on snow and ice, do you remember which way you are supposed to turn the wheel when you start to skid? For me, this was important especially when I lived in Colorado and went skiing in the mountains. If your car is sliding toward the cliff (terrifying drop-off) on your right, everything in you wants to yank the wheel to the left, doesn’t it? But if you do that, you will slide directly off the cliff! You have no traction. So what we have to do is fight against our instincts and turn into the skid (the very direction the car is sliding) until we have a little traction. Then when we feel our tires gripping the road a bit, we can (with a prayer that the traction will hold) try slightly turning the wheel in the other way and away from the cliff’s edge. It is exactly the same with communication. When we turn the focus to ourselves right away and make those (sometimes desperate and certainly ill-fated) efforts to redeem ourselves, we have no traction! And, when we try to steer a discussion without traction, we slide right over the cliff…. Sometimes hundreds of feet down.
So what should we do when we find ourselves the villain in another’s movie?
Well first, we need to breathe… relax our shoulders… and remember that there are always at least two right perspectives in any situation… ours and the other guy’s. (Remember the picture of the white chalice and the two black heads in silhouette?)
Second, if the message has come with judgment, shaming, blame, or contempt, it’s fine to say something like, “I want to hear you and understand, so could you say that again more gently?” (You never need to suck up abuse.)
Third, while keeping your body as relaxed as possible, paraphrase what you heard the person say. In addition, you might say something like, “I didn’t know that before.” or “Can you help me understand what hurts/upsets you most about that?” Feel free to say, “I’m sorry” and take some responsibility for at least some little part of the problem (e.g., “I probably did speak abruptly there,” “I certainly could be more conscious of your needs than I am sometimes,” “I do have tendency to blow off household chores which makes more work for you,” etc.)… anything you can say that translates to “You’re right about that” or “some of that.” It’s really helpful to validate the other’s feelings by saying something like: “I can see why you’d feel upset with me when that happens.”
What do you not have to do: grovel, insist that you are an Incredibly Flawed Person (as opposed to an incredible person with a few flaws), promise to be perfect in the future, or offer to leave so they can find somebody more worthy of them. Just own your stuff, say you’re sorry, and try to do better in the future. It’s important to recognize you will never be perfect, no matter how hard you try… that nobody is, including your loved ones (though to express that when they are upset with you is not advisable… that’s mega-defensiveness). Responding gracefully to the complaints, delivered gently, by other people will be a lifelong exercise so it pays to learn and practice all communication skills, especially this one!
Can you ever explain yourself? Sure… but wait until you’ve attended to the other person deeply and well… until you have a little bit of grip on the road. And when you do, make sure you don’t deliver your explanation as an excuse but rather as a genuine attempt at deeper mutual understanding.