Top Ten Interpersonal Skills -4- Send Signals of Similarity
I’m blogging about the Top Ten Interpersonal Communication Skills, and today’s post is #4 in the series.
What is it about people that makes some so easy to relate to, and others so difficult to deal with? How is it possible that you can get along with one and get into conflict with the other? The answer to these questions is that United We Stand, Divided We Can’t Stand Each other. Conflict occurs when the emphasis in an interaction or a relationship is on the differences between people. The more divided you seem to be, the sooner you fall. The lesson?
Send Signals of Similarity
You get along better with people when you build on a foundation of similarities between you. The difference between conflict with a friend and conflict with a difficult person, is that with a friend the conflict is tempered by the common ground you share. Success in communication depends on finding common ground before attempting to redirect the interaction toward a new outcome.
That’s where blending comes in. Blending is any behavior by which you reduce the differences between you and another in order to meet them where they are and move to common ground. Blending is an essential communication skill. It’s something people do automatically and naturally when they share a common vision, care about each other, or want to deepen a relationship. You may be amazed at how much a part of your life blending already is.
For example, have you ever been in a conversation with someone when, unexpectedly, you found that you both grew up in the same place? In that moment of discovery, differences were reduced and you felt closer. That’s the experience of blending.
When your child comes home from the playground teary-eyed from an injury on that little knee, what do you do? If your love for the child is strong, you will either pick the child up so that you are eye-to-eye, or you will bend down to the child’s level. You may even put your hand over your own knee, crinkle up your face, and in the same tone of voice say, “Does it hurt?” That’s blending, and it shows the child that you care.
Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone who has a strong regional accent, and you found yourself talking a little like them after a time? If so, that was your natural urge to merge, your desire to blend with people you like.
If you have ever gone somewhere all dressed up, only to find everyone else in shorts and tee shirts, then you know the feeling of not blending!
You blend with people in many ways. You blend visually with your facial expression, degree of animation, and body posture. You blend verbally with your voice volume and speed. And you blend conceptually with your words. But as natural as it is to blend with people that you like, or with people that you share an objective with, it is equally natural not to blend with people whom you perceive as difficult. And the failure to blend has serious consequences, because without blending the differences between you become the basis for conflict.
Here’s the key to the lesson. No one cooperates with anyone who seems to be against them. The fact is, in human relations there is no middle ground. Unconsciously or consciously, people want to know “Are you with me or not?” You come across as either hot or cold to the relationship, perceived as being on common ground or worlds apart. Believe it or not, that’s one of the things you have in common with your difficult people.
When resolving conflict, establishing commonality must always precede addressing differences.
A mother and teenage daughter sought counseling in a last ditch attempt to resolve seemingly irreconcilable differences. I observed that when the mother was angry with her daughter, her communications would speed up. However, her communications also sped up for other reasons besides anger. Sometimes she was frantic with worry. Sometimes, she was overwhelmed with things needing her attention. And sometimes, she had a bad reaction to sugar and coffee. But no matter what the reason for the mother’s acceleration of speech, the daughter has a profound reaction to it. It appeared to me that the teenager stopped listening to whatever her mother said, not because of what she said, but because of how she said it.
This pattern was well developed between them before they ever came to my office. Since repetition and intensity are how we create our habits, each incident made their limiting assumptions about each other more real, and the patterning of it grew stronger through time. Mom’s voice speeds up. Daughter looks disgusted and mutters something inaudible, pulls away emotionally. Mother finds the withdrawal and looks of revulsion to be frustrating. Mom’s voice speeds up more, gets louder. Daughter’s looks intensify, total silence. Mom loses temper. Daughter shuts all the way down. At some point, daughter explodes. Thus, through time, intensity and repetition, they grow so far apart that they have to shout at each other.
Unfortunately, this pattern is typical of many parent-child relationships. It’s not that there isn’t enough love. The problem is, there’s not enough blending. I pointed this out to the mother and daughter, helped them to become aware of their communication differences, helped them find their motivations for change, and, sure enough, they both changed their behavior.
Once the mother realized that she wanted her daughter’s attention while speaking to her, she began to purposely slow her communication down, blending with what worked for her daughter. The daughter was equally eager to have good communication with her mom, instead of the constant sound of harassment. So she began making the effort to pay attention to what her mom had to say independent of the speed, knowing that it didn’t just mean anger. Using their love for each other to keep them on track, they both did their part to improve their communication. Here, as is often the case, it was the process rather than the content of the communication that was causing the difficulty.
The lesson holds true. Signals of similarity make a profound difference in our relationships with people, even when they are people who we would expect to know us the best.
I don’t want to shout. But I’d love for you to speak out with your comments!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.