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What Is the Real Secret Sauce to Better Relationships (Especially with Yourself)?

Acknowledgment—the acceptance of the truth or existence of something” (according to dictionary.comgoes a long way toward defusing tension, clearing up miscommunication and building trust. 

It makes people feel seen and heard. When we simply acknowledge another person’s experience and viewpoint, even if we do not agree with it, they know we have heard them and do not need to “fight” to be heard. 

Think about the last time you were on the phone with a customer service representative and you had a problem. I don’t know about you,but when they follow a script, I’m ready to tear my hair out because they are not acknowledging what I’ve said. It makes me furious. If they say, “I understand,” or “I get that,” and then move on to what they want to say, it makes me even angrier because they have not demonstrated that they actually listened. 

However, when they acknowledge what I’m saying by using the same words I have or by rephrasing it and saying it back to me so that I know I’ve been heard, I calm down and become more rational and easier to work with. I don’t think I’m alone in this. 

Why is this a “secret” sauce?  Simply saying what IS occurring or what has happened sounds easy enough. 

Except that it’s not as easy as it sounds to do in the heat of the moment or, especially, when we are afraid of what telling the truth will mean. 

Let’s look at what we’ve learned from patient safety research. 

Long ago, physicians were advised NOT to admit errors because it was thought an admission of guilt would lead to more lawsuits, a very costly, time-consuming process that also damages reputations. Even when physicians wanted to admit mistakes, they were counseled not to. 

However, research that dates from 2009, found that when physicians “…acknowledge an error and its consequences, take responsibility, and communicate regret for having caused harm,” the relationship improved and the patient was less likely to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. The outcome was the opposite of what everyone thought. Why?

People want to know the truth and want the truth acknowledged. They also want to know the physician cares about them and regrets the error. When they feel heard, they are less likely to pursue medical malpractice because there is no longer anything to prove or fight. 

But if your livelihood and reputation are at stake, it’s a more difficult thing to admit. 

Since then the medical profession has continued to study this idea, with many states passing something called an “Apology Law,” which, in some cases, allows the physician to admit an error, without that admission being included in a malpractice lawsuit.

But not all apologies are equal. If an apology is disingenuine, only addresses part of a complaint or does not convey concern, it further damages the relationship and fuels patients (or the family’s) anger and may make them more likely to pursue legal action. 

Before I run farther down the rabbit hole, I want to point out that my point has to do with acknowledgment. Much has been written about how to make a proper apology, so I am not going to do that here.

So what’s all of this got to do with you and your relationships? Why am I spending so much time talking about acknowledging and accepting what is true?

Most of the time, our interactions with others aren’t life-and-death matters, but when miscommunication and distrust are present, it’s often because our reputation and security are at stake. We fear that simply by acknowledging what is true, we are at risk of retribution or of losing face; we may fear we are at risk of losing our place in the organization, community or family. Our natural impulse is to defend our security and reputation.

The problem is that our natural impulse doesn’t solve conflicts or build relationships. The instinct to defend creates more friction and erodes trust. Changing this instinctive response takes self-awareness, courage and practice. But.

Acknowledgment is powerful. Acknowledging the facts and the other party’s perspective (even if you don’t agree with it) is a game-changer. 

It’s the first skill I learned as a coach and one that I use daily: acknowledge the experience of the other party — what the other person is thinking, feeling and the situation from their perspective — and validate the emotion they are feeling. (When a session starts to go sideways, it’s often because I’ve failed to do practice this principle.) 

We are not agreeing with them. We are also not disagreeing with them or trying to prove why we are right. We are simply acknowledging what we have heard and what we understand. In essence, this is what you want, too, isn’t it — that they hear you and understand you? 

Acknowledging looks and sounds like:

  • What I hear you saying is____. (Provide your best summary of what they’ve said)

  • So you thought (or think) ____.

  • It sounds like you thought  ___, and then you felt ____. 

  • That’s important. (It’s even more powerful if you sum up what they’ve said followed by “That’s important.)

  • ____ is significant. Tell me more. 

At first using these phrases might feel awkward (and there are plenty more than what I’ve provided here), but they can help remind you to articulate what the other person said, not what you want to retort. Practice using these phrases in conversations that are not tense, and they will come more easily to you when you need them. In the heat of the moment, we all forget to communicate perfectly and use all of our tools, so if a conversation is awkward or goes sideways, that is part of learning. Coming back to someone to make a repair shows maturity and that the relationship is important to you. 

If tension has been brewing for awhile, it’s prudent to prepare for the conversation and be honest with yourself. In order to listen to them, we need to be really clear ourselves on what we think happened and how we felt. What are the facts of the situation? (See my previous post on “What the fact?”) What do you believe about those facts, the situation or the other person? What assumptions might you be making? How do you feel? Why? What do you truly want in this situation?

When it is your turn to provide your perspective, here are some phrases that can help clarify what you want to say.

I thought ____ and it made me feel ___.

I wanted ____, and instead I got ____.

The story I’ve been telling myself is ___.

It’s tricky. Here is how I saw it.

What’s just as powerful, and something you can practice all the time? It’s when we acknowledge to ourselves what we are actually thinking and feeling. Seems silly, but so often I hear clients  try to skip over negative thoughts and feelings and try to talk themselves into “thinking positive.” But giving ourselves a moment to acknowledge what we really think and feel without judgment, we release a lot of tension in ourselves. We don’t have to fight against what we’re feeling; we just feel it. A phrase that can help you get clarity on this is:

I’ve been telling myself , when actually, I think _.

I’ve been trying make myself feel ___, when I actually feel ___. 

Do you know someone who is feeling stuck? Forward this link to someone who could use a conversation to help them get un-stuck. They can book one of these complimentary sessions by January 31. 


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