Barbara Fish Counselling Services ... helping your life work

I’m Sorry, So Sorry

Helping Your Life Work

Volume 8, Issue 7

July, 2012

Canadians have the reputation of being quick to say ‘I’m sorry’, even on those occasions when we have nothing to be sorry about. If someone bumps into us, for example, there’s an almost involuntary reaction that causes our mouths to open and form the words. While this behaviour seems to be commonly used with strangers, I am not sure that we are equally apologetic with those with whom we work, play or live.

When communication problems arise in our relationships, it’s much easier to point fingers and lay blame. But telling someone that it is his or her fault, not ours, not only absolves us of our responsibility, but also deflects the focus that we need to place on ourselves to determine what role we play in creating or maintaining the problem. Most conflicts are not simply black and white. Usually, both parties jointly contribute to problems that exist. While we may wish that we could wave a magic wand to cause the other person to change, we are the only ones that we have the power to change.

At the beginning of this month, I attended a four-day intensive workshop presented by Dr. David Burns, author of ‘Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy’, ‘The Feeling Good Handbook,’ ‘Ten Days to Self-Esteem’, “When Panic Attacks’ and more.While I have been using his techniques for years, it was good to review what I knew and add to his repertoire. The technique called The Five Secrets of Effective Communication was a familiar but nonetheless great reminder of a powerful form of resolving conflict. At the risk of oversimplifying a technique that is both difficult to do as well as emotionally challenging in the heat of the moment, I thought I would present some of the ideas that Dr. Burns shared with us in the hope that you may find it helpful the next time that you find yourself in conflict with a friend, client, colleague or loved one.

The Five Secrets of Effective Communication starts off with the Disarming technique. This is where we try to find some truth in what the other person is saying about us. As difficult as it might be to admit our flaws, particularly with someone who is pointing them out to us, there is no better way to diffuse a situation and model a behaviour that we may want the other to follow as well. For example, if a wife complains to her husband that he wasn’t really listening, he might respond with “I’m sorry. You’re right. I don’t think I’ve done such a good job in listening to you today.”

This is followed by the Empathy stage in which we try to better understand what the other person is saying and acknowledge their right to feel this way. While the first part of the method (paraphrasing) can sometimes feel forced and inauthentic (when one repeats what was said verbatim), it really does work when one can get the gist without the repetition. “When I don’t listen, I guess that leaves you feeling ignored. I can imagine that that must frustrate and hurt you.”

The Inquiry stage is one in which we ask questions to learn more. “I’d like to hear more about what you are thinking and how you are feeling.” Then encourage the response with active listening, eye contact, head nods and other demonstrations of understanding.

The fourth stage is one where we express our own thoughts and feelings with statements that start with the words, ‘I Feel.’ “I feel disappointed in myself for not being able to really listen to you.”

And finally, the last stage, known as Stroking, is one in which we find something positive to say about the other. “I admire your honesty and directness in bringing this to my attention.”

This series of techniques may feel and seem totally antithetical to how we are feeling in the moment and may require more than a few times to master. But if you are having difficulties with a coworker at work, or if you and a loved one are engaged in a series of battles that you can’t seem to extricate yourselves from, then you may want to try this out to see if you can gain some resolution. Try it and let me know how it goes. If you would like some help with practicing, call me for an appointment. I’d be happy to help.

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”

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