Don’t Get Lost in Being Right.

5 Steps to Reducing Rage and Having Better Conversations

I know I’m right. Why can’t you just accept that? As you’re talking, I’m thinking about the rebuttals I have to all of your ludicrous statements. Before you finish your spiel, I jump in and unload my verbal diarrhea on you because you deserve it and need to hear it now. Then instead of accepting my argument, you have the audacity to interrupt me with your half baked thoughts to try and convince me I’m crazy. Are you kidding me? Who the hell do you think you are? Wait I know, you’re just stupid. There’s no point in having this conversation with you, you’ll never understand where I’m coming from and are simply intellectually incapable of having a rational human conversation. You’re blind and I’m done with this. I’m now going to proceed to walk away from you feeling frustrated, but also feeling pretty superior because I’ve labelled you an idiot. Rage!

Growing up my Dad would always tell me: “If the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand you, this is actually your fault and your problem. You need to do a better job of communicating.” It sounds pretty trivial, but it’s not. If it were, then we wouldn’t have as many frustrating (and often pointless) disagreements in our daily lives. So over the years I’ve developed kind of an internal framework for approaching disagreements, debates and emotionally charged conversations. It looks something like this:

  1. Be aware of your ego before you open up your mind.
  2. Open your mind before you listen.
  3. Listen before you think.
  4. Think before you speak.
  5. Speak, remain aware and then start back at 1.

I’m not suggesting that this is a framework for getting people to agree with you. That’s not the purpose here. I’m just proposing a simple framework towards having a conversation that either results in a) you understanding another individual’s perspective better or b) another individual understanding your perspective better. That’s it. In the process, you’ll have less rage, better conversations and will probably learn something too. Part of this framework is courtesy, part of this is empathy, and part of this is also diplomacy. It’s not the only framework, nor is it bulletproof, but I find that it’s one that works for me.

To make it slightly easier to grasp, I’ve provided some additional detail for each step of the framework. It includes a short description of the goal of each step along with short internal monologue of what may go through your mind when trying to put this into practice.

1. Be aware of your ego before you open up your mind.

Goal: I try and recognize that I have personal motivations for wanting to be right, and that these motivations influence how I react to other people’s opinions and arguments.

Possible Internal Monologue: This is the way it really should be done. He doesn’t get that we’ve tried his way before and it just won’t work. Wait a sec, do I know that for sure? Is it just my ego that wants me to win this discussion and be right? Ok fine yes, I do want to be right but how important is that to me?

2. Open your mind before you listen.

Goal: I try and recognize that I have biases built into my thought process. That’s okay, everyone has biases, but I need to be aware of the fact that they exist. I try to temporarily hit the reset button on my biases to gain an open mind before getting deep into a discussion.

Possible Internal Monologue: Sure we’ve tried this before, but just because it didn’t work then, is that enough to say it won’t work now? I need to recognize that I may be missing something and it sucks, but I could still be wrong. What am I missing? Do I have a view of the entire picture? Do I have any emotional or psychological barriers that could prevent me from understanding him better? I need to remain objective.

3. Listen before you think.

Goal: I try to do just one thing when I’m in the middle of a conversation: listen to the person I’m talking to. Instead of thinking of how I may structure an argument to disprove him or how to share a relevant personal story of my own, I try to just listen and absorb the words being said to me.

Possible Internal Dialogue: What can I learn from this individual? What are his words and body language trying to tell me. C’mon be present, just stop and listen. Try and make an effort to fully hear him out.. Am I actually absorbing this information? Do I have an appreciation for the basis of his argument?

4. Think before you speak.

Goal: This part is two fold: 1) I try to make sure I’ve made a conscious effort to understand the information that was just shared with me and 2) I try to consider the impact of the words that are about to leave my mouth before saying them out loud.

Possible Internal Dialogue: Hmm I think I understand the basis of this argument. He is suggesting Z, because of Y, which is really the consequence of X. While I don’t necessarily agree, I now understand the basis of his argument. However this argument is flawed and I want him to understand that he has a huge bias because of his prior experience at W. What is the best way for me explain this to him? Is he emotionally attached to his argument and obsessed with being right, or is he willing to accept an alternative reality? Should I be direct in telling him his logic is flawed? Should I probe and ask more questions to try help him come to the realization himself? How will my words make him feel? How would my words make me feel if I were in his shoes? I think I will just ask a follow up question on his experiences at W and see if he’s able to notice that he has a major bias there. Maybe I’m missing something here as well that I’ll be able to understand better by asking more questions.

5. Speak, remain aware and then start back at 1.

Goal: This one is the most difficult. I try to speak while separating my emotion from the conversation. As part of this, I make a conscious effort to acknowledge the other party’s point of view while ensuring I’m not bullying them into agreement. This can also mean slowing down and pausing if I need to mid-sentence in order to catch myself. I may also go back and repeat step 4 in order to get my thoughts together.

Possible Internal Dialogue: Even though I’m passionate about this subject, I need to remain calm. My passion alone will not convince him. I need articulate myself in a manner that shows a deep understanding of his views as well. Am I making any sense? Is my argument sound? How are my choice of words impacting him? What is my tone? What is my body language saying? What is his reaction to my words?

The other day Ritu (my wife) said to me: “Are you having a conversation with yourself again? I can tell by your face that the wheels are turning up there.” I laughed because I knew she was right. We weren’t having a disagreement, but we were in the middle of a conversation and I was taking my time moving between steps 4 and 5. Typically, it doesn’t take me that long to move through all five steps because I’ve been doing this for years, but it does happen occasionally which reminds me that I need to practice. Practice is important. The more you practice, the more you will notice the benefits. Noticing the benefits will motivate you to keep using the framework, and then it will likely become a part of your standard thought process.

With that said, there’s a good chance that you’re going to have some sort of a difference of opinion with your spouse or a colleague within the next week. When that happens, before you start feeling like he or she is an idiot that “just doesn’t understand,” try and remember my Dad’s advice: “this is actually your fault and your problem. You need to do a better job of communicating.” So stop raging and avoid getting lost in being right. Do something different, change up your communication style, and try out this framework. If it works, then you’re welcome. If it doesn’t, then you just don’t understand and you’re an idiot.