After Jiu-Jitsu training this morning, I overheard the Professor (that’s how we address Jiu-Jitsu black belts) use the phrase, “What I’m hearing you say is…” during a conversation with another student, and I got excited. I popped my head around the corner and said, “Those are some awesome listening skills you have there! Whenever I hear someone say a phrase like that, I know they’ve really spent some time practicing their communication skills!”
(Yea, I really said that. As you can see, I am a total nerd.)
Turns out, this guy is a former police officer who actually learned and practiced active listening/communication skills during on-the-job crisis-negotiation training that has its roots in the FBI. And yet, they are skills he uses every day as a Jiu-Jitsu teacher and at home with his family.
That’s bad ass.
So my Professor gave me a quick run-down of that training, and I realized: this is EXACTLY the same kind of training we need in relationships, especially when we’re navigating difficult conversations and emotions are running high.
Regardless of your relationship status, there isn’t a single relationship in your life that won’t benefit at one point or another from your ability to navigate a difficult conversation with skill. And I use the word “relationship” loosely here, because these skills benefit you everywhere from your workplace, to your gym, to the after-school pick-up line at your child’s school.
The fact is that none of us are a piece-of-cake to be with all of the time, and the sooner we realize that, the better. The people we love and encounter in our lives are going to occasionally (or often) feel less than delighted about how we show up. And if we want healthy relationships, we have to talk about this stuff, or it just builds up like a toxic crud that got swept under the rug until the whole situation gets FUBAR.
Healthy relationships require us to get on board with emotional conversations, which means we need to have good communication skills.
A lot of people believe they have excellent communication skills because they themselves understand what they are saying, or because they are saying it in a way that they would appreciate hearing it from someone else. However, the reality is, the quality of your communication skills has nothing to do with your intentions. Let me say that again:
The quality of your communication skills has nothing to do with your intentions.
No matter how you intend to come across, other people will interpret what you say through their own personal life filters, and you simply can’t predict or control how they’ll do so.
And communication is a two-way street. It’s not just what you say and how you say it. It’s also being a good listener, which, again, isn’t about whether you think you’re listening well. It’s about whether the other person feels seen and heard as a result of the experience of your attempt to listen. (How do you know if they feel heard? Did you ask them?)
So how do we become better communicators? Good communication skills mean speaking and hearing in such a way that makes all parties feel fully heard, understood, and emotionally safe. These feelings are essential to the foundation of Juicy. Delicious. Love. There will be nothing juicy or delicious about love if people don’t feel seen by or safe with you. But again, how?
Well, we certainly can’t control how other people show up. So my guidance is always going to be about you and how you show up. And in my experience, the best way to transform relationship communication is to learn, practice, and model the skills yourself first. There are tons of tools out there to help us with this, but today, I thought I’d share with you what my Professor shared with me from the FBI Crisis Negotiations Unit’s “Active Listening Skills” set.
You may say, “But Kim, we’re not negotiating a hostage situation here. Do we really need FBI Negotiator training?”
And the answer is YES. Because whether you’re in a crisis involving the FBI or a crisis involving the way you feel in the most important relationship in your life, your body pretty much treats it the same. We are wired for belonging and connection, and our nervous systems behave as if anything that threatens that is a threat to our survival. Cue fight or flight mode and activate the parts of our brains that don’t do high-level strategic thinking very well, and our communications skills fly out the window. So at any given moment, either you or your partner (or both) is the panick-stricken hostage-holder, and one of you has to become the calm, capable negotiator.
And what does the negotiator do? Well, for one: MOREPIES (not the kind you eat). MOREPIES is the acronym developed by the FBI to help negotiators remember their active listening skills while under pressure. They aren’t in any particular order, as they are meant to be used fluidly, as needed/appropriate, in a difficult conversation with someone who is in an emotionally heightened state (e.g. your partner coming to you about a problem… or your partner after you did something seemingly innocent and have no idea why they’re upset about it).
When you practice these, try to be sincerely curious and caring, wanting to truly understand what’s being communicated with you. None of this works if you’re not truly open and wanting to hear the other person’s perspective with empathy. But, if you practice these skills when someone brings up a tough topic with you, you’ll eventually become a master at helping others feel heard, understood, and emotionally safe with you. Note that the focus here isn’t about *SOLVING* the problem. It’s about being there with your partner while they are FEELING the problem. Big difference. And there’s NO way you can move on to solving until both of you feel seen and heard about what you’re feeling.
BTW: For the rest of this day, I’m walking around shouting, “I AM AN F. B. I. AGENT” in my best Keanu Reeves impression. If you haven’t seen this scene in the movie Point Break, go watch it.
So here we go: MOREPIES. (I can always go for more pie.)
While the other person is speaking, use little responses like “uh huh, ok, yea, really” to show them you are listening, while leaning in and making eye contact, fully present.
Open Ended Questions
Whether you’re wanting someone to open up at the start of a conversation or inviting them to open up more during a pause, open-ended questions convey genuine interest and a desire to truly understand their experience fully. A good example of this is, “I really want to understand how you’re feeling about this. Can you tell me more about ________?”, filling in the blank with something they mentioned that seemed particularly important. Another one might be, “How are you feeling about that?”
Sometimes, just repeating the last few words of a person’s phrase can help encourage the other person down the path of expression. So, for example, if I said, “I have a lot on my plate, and when you leave your dirty dishes laying around, it’s like ANOTHER thing.” you could say, “It’s like another thing.” And then, feeling totally heard, I’d be like, “YEA! EXACTLY!”
When you hear the person express or even just portray an emotion, labeling that emotion can help them realize what they’re feeling for the first time and feel seen/understood. You could say something like, “I hear grief there” or “You seem frustrated by that” or “What’s that feeling I’m sensing from you… is it anger?”
This one is gold for me. There was a time I’d be 40 minutes into an argument with my partner when he would finally say something that made me realize he actually had not understood one bit of what I was actually upset about. We were having two different arguments. So each time the other person has had a chance to express themselves, take a moment to paraphrase what they’re saying. You can say something like, “I want to make sure I really understand what you’re going through, so tell me if I’m getting this. What I’m hearing you say is that you feel ____ because ____. Is that right?” This might seem silly at first, but you’d be surprised at how often we think we’ve got the message, but we’ve completely missed it. Confirm it to make sure you’ve heard it right and to help the other person feel heard.
Starting difficult conversations by telling another person what you think is wrong about them or their behavior is a recipe for total disaster. No one shows up as their best selves to a conversation in which they feel attacked, criticized, or blamed. Additionally, the point of having difficult conversations is to talk about our own feelings, which are the only ones we are responsible for. We are hopefully not attempting to control or manipulate someone else’s behavior. That’s on them. So this skill is about practicing I-statements instead of You-statements. Try saying, “I feel overwhelmed and unappreciated,” instead of “You never help out around the house.” Note: Saying “I feel like you yada, yada, and yada,” is the opposite of what you want to do here. Focus on how you feel and your emotions, NOT what they did.
When the other person takes a pause to think or breathe or feel, allow the pause.
<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< PAUSE >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Get comfortable with silence and space in a conversation so everyone has time to reflect and consider without feeling pressured or rushed. It may feel awkward at first, but once you stop jumping to fill every pause with noise, you’ll learn to appreciate the magic that happens when you allow a little space in between thoughts and responses. In addition, an effective pause can be just what the other person needs to build up the courage to go a little deeper with their share.
Every now and then, especially if you’re engaged in a longer, more complex dialogue, you can summarize what’s been covered so far. This, again, can help the other person feel heard and ensure you’re both on the same page about where the conversation is headed. So you might say, “Ok, so at this point, I’m getting that ________ happened and you feel ____ about that, and you would feel more supported if I would _____.” Or whatever has been shared so far.
So that’s it! That’s MOREPIES. You’ve officially learned some FBI crisis negotiation tactics for your relationship, an active listening strategy to help you become a better listener/communicator during difficult conversations, but also, throughout life in general.
Give these a shot and let me know how it goes!