Rule #1 of communication is to say something in real time about what bugs you. If something another person does bugs you, you’ve got about a week to say something before the issue sinks into your soul and rots. It’s easy to say “communicate in real time,” but much harder to do it, and harder still to do it well. Here are some communication imperatives for communication rule #1. Then we’ll get to the whole saving the world thing.
First, tell the other person about the communication cleanse-the process, and what’s required. It’s a simple set of steps. One person disclosures what happened and what his response to it was. The second person listens. She doesn’t defend or argue. When he’s done, she’s free to respond, and it’s his turn to listen-again, without adding anything, defending, or arguing. This process is difficult because when we hear words that sound like attacks, our brains go into “fight or flight” mode. Our conscious mind disconnect from our rationality. So when a person says: “I need you to just listen,” he needs to know what he’s asking. The other person will likely feel attacked, and want to defend and fight back. It takes maturity, emotional intelligence, and practice to not respond.
Second, use wisdom about when to start the communication cleanse. If you disclose every single thing that bothers you as it’s happening, you’re a jerk-spouting off judgments Old Faithful style. Don’t be a jerk.
Third, don’t wait too long. If you wait longer than about a week to do the cleanse, the irritation will have gelled into a narrative: a fictional collection of evaluations about the other person that feel real. Walter Fisher, a brilliant communication theorist, said that narratives that “ring true” and are internally consistent, stick.
I fell victim to a narrative this week. Months of unexpressed communication had gelled into an evaluation of me that the person held to righteous conviction. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the narrative had the ring of truth to it, and it was internally consistent. In his mind, I was an uncaring, selfish, narcissist. We traced it back to a series of tiny incidents, from which he drew his narrative.
Fourth, don’t be a self-righteous pig about narratives: remember that you’ve got them, too. Just as the person had not followed rule #1 of communication-and expressed himself in real time-I had also failed to use the rule. No one is immune from narratives, myself included. Mine-also based on tiny incidents-was that he was judgmental, rigid, uncaring, and a bully.
Fifth, laugh. When I saw this person, I didn’t see him, I saw my narrative of him. And he saw his narrative of me. It’s so fundamentally absurd that when people see what’s actually happened-fake narratives gelled out of ant-sized events-it’s funny. Laughing at a narrative-especially your own-loosens its grip, and gives your own self-righteousness a needed kick in the head.
Sixth, set a regular time for narrative cleansing. In CultureSync, we use a group process called an oil change that that rids tribes of narratives. For two people, catch them early. I have two colleagues with whom I regularly have martinis. When drop #1 of the ice cold Gray Goose hits our lips, we’re allowed to say anything. Hierarchy is irrelevant. I’m a big fan of martini nights, as long as no one feels pressured to drink, and you line up taxis to take everyone home when it’s done.
Seventh, the topic of this blog post is epically, monumentally important. The democrats and republicans are locked in dueling narratives, with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to “prove” that each narrative is true. President Obama is a liberal elitist who wants to steal money and fund ineffective government programs. Governor Romney is selfish flip flopper who wants to make life worse for most people and benefit the 1%. China and the United States are trading partners but at war over narratives. The biggest problem, in my opinion, in the Middle East is “The Narrative” (the inspiration for my use of the term), in which people hold to the idea that 9/11 was a plot to start a war against Muslims. We could go on. Climate change, the budget deficit, the financial Armageddon that awaits the United States if the Congress and the President don’t work out a debt solution soon. All problems that spring from narratives, running in packs like rabid dogs, spreading their disease, giving us a national malaise that is more oppressive than the summer heat.
August is a great time for resolutions. I hope you’ll consider joining the Rule #1 Club, and following, to the letter, the advice in this blog post. Start by doing a communication cleanse with one person today.