Jacinta realized she was angry about not being heard. She said to her friend Reya, “I’m mad about our translation project. I still think this idiom isn’t quite right.”
Reya said flatly, “I disagree.”
Jacinta took a deep breath and tried again. “I really appreciate that you did this translation. Your technical Spanish is much better than mine, and I’m grateful for your work. I thought we were collaborating. What I can contribute is fixing this one sentence that sounds jarring to my ear. You’re throwing away my contribution.”
Reya softened. “Oh. That’s a much better story than mine. I thought you were saying I was wrong.” Together they fixed the translation.
Facing a wall
It can be puzzling and infuriating when someone repeatedly does not hear us. “You’re not listening!” rarely goes over well, but it is hard to know what else to say when we face a blank wall.
Reya was caught up in an old story that did not have room for Jacinta’s contribution. Sometimes our own shame or fear is too loud to let us hear someone else’s message. Jacinta took a step back and named her experience without blaming or ascribing negative motives. Her underlying message was, “I want us to be on the same side.” Fortunately, Reya could hear and accept her invitation.
Your emotions and perspective
When you find yourself facing a blank wall, take some time away from the conversation to find a collaborative story.
First, stand firmly in your story. Make room for your own emotions and perspective. It makes sense to be angry, confused, or upset when you are not heard. Acknowledge any shame and fear that comes up.
When someone ignores our reality, there is a gaslighting effect where we doubt the value of our own perspective. Allow that doubt to be there, and also affirm that your perspective is valid.
What is the best outcome you would like to see? Jacinta wanted to address a specific task as well as generally repair their friendship. Desired outcomes might also include peaceful coexistence, acknowledgement, validation, clarifying boundaries, and communicating feedback.
If the situation reminds you of past experiences, look at both similarities and differences in yourself and in the situation. Your collaborative story can acknowledge the similarities to the past, as well as the new outcome you would like to see.
If you find yourself behaving in ways that are not usual for you, acknowledge that as well. Sometimes we get pulled into a role in someone else’s story. We all tend to project our pasts and expectations on present events.
Their point of view
Now turn your attention to the other person’s story. Imagine how the situation looks from their point of view. Even though we tend to assume people are judging us, it might not be about you at all. Are there times that you have acted the way they are acting? See them with compassion as a vulnerable human trying to meet needs and avoid pain. What do you genuinely appreciate about them?
Return to your own story and point of view. Has it changed after visiting the other person’s perspective? Can you imagine a perspective that puts you both on the same side? While you see them as an enemy, you will not be able to offer a collaborative story.
Offer your story
Note that a collaborative story includes everyone’s full emotions, perspectives, and boundaries. You do not have to erase parts of yourself to collaborate. Put together a brief story that conveys, “I see and respect you as a fellow struggling human. This is what is happening for me. Here is the collaborative outcome I want. Can we address this together?” In an ongoing conflict, it might help to explicitly explore everyone’s underlying stories.
Find a time to offer your collaborative story and then listen for their response and their story. You may feel the relief and softening of being heard, or you may continue to feel the frustration of being blocked out. Sometimes people remain committed to their competitive or combative story. Your offer of collaboration helps you disengage from combative stories. Listening for their story might give them an opportunity to get past defensiveness.
Center marginalized viewpoints
Sometimes, people who are immersed in their own point of view only need a gentle reminder to include yours as well. Unfortunately, sometimes people remain persistently oblivious to others’ points of view.
When someone resembles their society’s “default human” (able-bodied, cis, straight, white, male, Christian, etc.), they are surrounded by narratives reinforcing their point of view. By contrast, someone with a more marginalized identity constantly practices understanding the mainstream point of view as well as their own. We can all benefit from decentering mainstream stories and listening to more marginalized viewpoints.
Trauma effects can also play a role. Dissociation leads people to shut down awareness of the outside world. Hypervigilance leads people to attend to every nuance of the people around them. People who have been subject to emotional abuse tend to reflexively question their own point of view even when no one else is currently invalidating it.
Monitor emotional labor
It takes emotional labor to find and offer collaborative stories in the face of ongoing blank walls. When someone repeatedly shuts out your point of view, you can monitor whether the relationship is sustainable for you.
Collaborative stories can help ease conflicts with inner parts as well. Even the most negative parts are fundamentally trying to help us survive, possibly with outdated information and tools. Listening for their stories with compassion builds a bridge so that all the inner voices can work together to survive and thrive in the present.
Loneliness and depression are endemic. When we invite people to be on the same side with collaborative stories, we open the door to more connection in our lives.
- Sharon Ellison’s book Taking The War Out of Our Words has more about questions, statements, and predictions that invite collaboration rather than conflict. Website: Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC).
- Caroline Belden’s post “Decentering the Dominant Narrative” is still painfully relevant.
- Chally Kacelnik writes about “The Default Human.”
[…] I wrote about a similar approach in 2018 in Offer a Collaborative Story. […]