I recently spent time with a friend that worked with me over 15 years ago. During our lunch conversation, he brought up the fact that he would see me crying at work and wondered what that was all about. During those years, I did remember crying at work. I was in my first management role and I was in over my head. On top of that, I was working 50-60 hours a week, navigating office politics, didn’t have the management support I needed, broke up with a boyfriend and was exhausted. Just thinking of this time in my life makes me sad. Recalling these memories, I became angry and defensive. I could feel her inside of me, wanting to defend herself. I felt her wanting cry.
Then something switched. The part of me that still felt like a victim with all these things being done to her, find responsibility. For the first time, I could be honest with myself about who I was, how I showed up, how I contributed to the situation, and all the shame I had. Staring at the past me, I was able to look her in the eyes for the first time and see everything she was feeling and struggling with. It wasn’t easy to look at her as honestly as I did, and it felt good. It was healing. The hidden truths came out and it felt like something I was ashamed of masked and hiding was able to come out of the closet. I can still feel something shifting in me today.
As I take more responsibility for my life, I see gaps between myself and others where responsibility isn’t taken. The impact often is a loss of respect and trust. The relationship is hurt and intimacy is lost. Often because of our communication style, personal responsibility, and discomfort around others emotions.
Have you ever been told, “I’m not responsible for your feelings.” I have and it annoys me. The statement is factually true. I get it! When we hear something spoken to us, either verbally or in writing, we have a reaction. That reaction is based on a complex mix of possibilities: mood, stress levels, stories that are triggered, beliefs, needs not met and any other myriad of things. In the end, we choose how we respond. Do we react and act out or do we take time and speak non-defensively? For example, a friend texts an hour before dinner to say they can no longer hang out. If you were really looking forward to seeing them, you may be sad and disappointed. Another possibility, you had a bad day and could be relieved that your friend didn’t want to have dinner. A lot will inform your feelings and response.
My concern with “I’m not responsible for your feelings,” is that it isn’t completely true. If we care for our relationships, than we do have a responsibility. We have the choice about how we say something, the context, timing, intent and more. If our aim is responsibility for the care of our relationships, we would share responsibility.
Our responsibility becomes to the relationship and the intent to build a trusting, respectful, and caring bond. This requires us to make a practice of communicating non-defensively and taking the power struggle out of our conversations. It requires each of us to be present with our own feelings and thought, especially since communication is more than just the words we say. According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s elements of personal communication; communication is 7% spoken words, 38% voice and tone, and 55% body language. So even though we may say something that sounds non-defensive, the tone and body language can communicate something else.
The more we are able to sit with other’s feelings, even when they are tough and not shift into right/wrong or blame we can be personally responsible for ourselves, and our impact on the other person. We step into a space of compassionate understanding and acceptance of another’s emotions versus being over whelmed by guilt and our own shame. We learn to allow and provide space for the emotions and reactions of another. Knowing that each of us is human. Knowing that each of us isn’t always perfect and that we do our best and are committed to building the relationship.
When we are able to do this for ourselves and others it opens up a new space of communication and way of relating in a relationship.
In my research of looking at models of communication, I’ve read many books; Crucial Conversations by … done some work with Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Goldberg and most recently I’ve read through Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Strand Ellison to name a few. By far my favorite has been Taking the War Out of Our Words. I appreciated that she did a thorough job of looking at defensive communication and helping to provide insight into the reason and how we communicate the way we do. She surrenders, betrayal, sabotage, withdraw tactics, counterattack, and justification.
Here’s what I’m taking away: