Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to shut down an argument - instantly

How would you like to banish 80% of the arguments in your life?

I am about to teach you a simple but powerful technique that will do exactly that. Something that almost no one ever does – but once you try it, you will find it positively liberating.

Picture someone criticizing you about something. Anything. Is there even the slightest shred of truth to what they are saying? Good! Now, here is what I want you to do: "lean in" to what they are saying, and acknowledge their criticism with as much gusto as possible.

Repeat after me: Wow. You're right, I really *am* that way. It's terrible. This must completely frustrate the heck out of you ... you get the idea.

This feels like bungee jumping naked off a bridge for most of us. We all have very strong survival instincts to lean away from criticism and defend ourselves. Which almost always makes the other person react with more anger. But when you lean in, something amazing happens. You short-circuit the other person's natural fight-or-flight reflex, and suddenly you are both talking rationally.

Here is an example: I train lots of hospitality professionals, and I often have them role-play the following scenario. A guest comes in to your hotel at 2 AM with a guaranteed reservation. You just gave away the last room. Now, the best you can do for them tonight is a room at the Dumpy Inn, 20 miles away.

At first, most people walk right into my trap: they are timid, euphemistic, and try their best to sugar coat the situation. They won't even mention the name Dumpy Inn. And it never works: the other person always reacts with rage and righteous indignation.

Then I coach people to deliver the bad news, and then lean right in: "Absolutely, you do have a guaranteed reservation, and you certainly weren't expecting to not have a room. You must be exhausted at this hour. We do have one option, but it isn't a great one. We can put you up tonight at the Dumpy Inn. It is 20 miles away, and it is pretty Dumpy. But I want to make sure you have a place to sleep until we can make things right for you tomorrow. And of course, tonight's stay is on us."

Surprisingly, most "angry" people respond rationally to this frank summary. They almost have to - you are using all their good lines first. And if they complain, I would lean right back into it. "Absolutely. This was totally our fault. I would be furious too!" Almost always, like magic, the other person calms down.

Just remember: the more gusto, the better. It feels like pouring gasoline on a fire at first, but it really works. Take the time last month that I was finishing graduate school and working full tilt, and never got around to clearing out some boxes in the den for my sweetie. What did I say as she stood there with her hands on her hips? "Of course, dear. I've been horrible. You've been expecting me to clean this for weeks. You must be really upset!"

Now, of course, I did also negotiate a firm date to clear out the boxes. (This is why I am a smart man who has managed to stay married for decades.) But my initial response totally sucked the heat out of the situation. And I've watched the same technique break through long-simmering conflicts, sometimes dramatically, when I have had family therapy clients try it.

Last point. Some of you might be thinking, "but can't I get in trouble by owning up to what I did wrong?" Ironically, you usually get in much less trouble. Even in the extreme. Here is what I find fascinating about the last decade's wave of corporate scandals, for example: the sentences handed out to the frank and remorseful, versus those who acted like conceited narcissists and deflected all blame. In my view, some people are literally doing years of extra prison time for the want of communications skills.

So next time someone starts shooting flames at you, try walking right into them – and then crank the heat even higher! You will be truly amazed at how much less criticism there is in your life.