Speaking While Upset: Moving from Destructive to Constructive in 6 Simple Steps

Photo by Gibson Claire McGuire Regester on Flickr
Let's assume that you already know that trying to express your feelings and thoughts while you are physically and psychologically aroused (angry, exasperated, deeply disappointed) is unlikely to help you communicate productively (unless you count number of insults or volume level as part of your productivity quotient).

Let's also assume that like me, you have adopted a number of "calming down" techniques (time out from the other person, breathing, going for a walk, standing on your head, eating chocolate, ok - I digress) before trying to talk with the person about what happened (or simply re-engaging with them at all).

Perhaps you have then discovered, like I have, that these calming down strategies work fairly well while the two of you are apart, but don't do much good when you actually try to communicate about the issue (whether in person or over email).

This is because most calming down techniques do not fundamentally change the thoughts and judgments you are holding about the person or their behavior. 

Thus, when you communicate with the person, those negative thoughts and judgments ("She's careless and incompetent" "That was so inconsiderate and disrespectful!") get woven into your tone and word choices. And - sensing these barbed messages within your communication, the person will have a much harder time focusing on what you are saying - or hearing you the way you'd like to be heard.

So, what is one to do? Marshall Rosenberg, the father of Non Violent Communication (NVC), urges us to engage in "empathy before education."

The most effective and efficient way I know of doing this on my own is to fill out an Empathy Worksheet.

There are different variations of these in the NVC community; this one is a slight modification of one used by Newt Bailey, effective communication coach and conflict resolution trainer, facilitator and mediator - as well as one of the stars of the Conflict Hotline, a show on conflict resolution hosted by BayNVC's non violence guru Miki Kashtan.

What I love about my Empathy Worksheet:
  • Quick (10 - 20 min depending on how deep you want to go)
  • Easy (my 8 yr. old does it on his own)
  • Empowering (moves me past self-pity, anger, judgments and criticisms to what really matters to me)
  • Effective (allows me to communicate in a way that greatly increases my chances of being heard and to hear the other person)
So, what's involved? 


STOP what you are doing and take 10 minutes to fill out the Worksheet!

BEFORE YOU PRESS SEND. Don't send that angry email you just composed! Go do the Worksheet and then edit the email before sending it out.

BEFORE YOU ESCALATE. If you are in an escalating argument, STOP. Tell the other person this is not going anywhere productive and that you'd like to take some time out and continue in 30 minutes. Go do the Worksheet and then reboot the conversation using what you discovered.

BEFORE YOU CONFRONT. If you are upset and rehearsing all the things you are going to say when you see that person, find 10 minutes to do the Worksheet first.

If you are ruminating about something, do the Worksheet for some relief and some movement forward.

Preparing the Worksheet: You can create the Worksheet on any piece of paper. Divide the paper in thirds by letter folding it. Label the top third "Judgments", the middle third "Feelings" and the bottom third "Needs". 


Choose a specific incident and describe it as objectively as you can at the very BOTTOM of the page (the top will get thrown out later).

Even if you are angry or disappointed by a series of incidents, it will help if you choose one (either the most recent or the one that is MOST symbolic of the whole thing).

Let's say the issue is your partner repeatedly not following through with agreements you have made. The most recent incident might be that they did not mail a package they said they would mail for you.
Got home and saw the package on the table.
A less objective description would be: "The package was still on the table..." or "You forgot to mail the package" or "Once again, something I care about was not..."  etc. 


This is the part where you get to vent!

In the TOP THIRD of your Worksheet, write down all the nasty, brutal, attacking, judgmental, self-pitying, analytical, diagnostic, despairing, evaluative judgments and thoughts you are having about the person or incident. Don't hold back (they will NOT get to see this part of the sheet).
So inconsiderate!        Oh my god can't take it anymore!        Self centered, uncaring, no feelings.        Really in trouble this time.        Why why why???        Can't trust anymore.        Unbearable! etc.

In the MIDDLE THIRD of your Worksheet, write down all the feelings you have about the person or incident. If your feeling vocabulary is a bit under-nourished, use a list such as this one: http://cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory.
Angry.     Furious.      Frustrated.      Surprised.     Actually - NOT surprised!       Exasperated.        Fuming.          Despair.        Hopeless.         Super sad.        etc.


On the BOTTOM THIRD of your sheet, write down the unmet needs which may be leading to the feelings you wrote above. Try using the starting phrases "I need more..." or "I am really wanting some..." .

Most of us have been trained not to consider our needs as legitimate, so your needs vocabulary might also benefit from a helpful list: http://cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory.

It is important to remember that, in this model, the feelings stem from the deep unmet needs you have in this area - not from the one incident or even from the one person consistently failing to meet those needs (that is, our needs can only be met fully when we turn to multiple people and multiple strategies to fill them).


I really want more respect.        I need consideration and care.         I want to be able to trust you when we agree on something.       I want some help and support around here.      I want things to just be easier between us!
When you have finished writing down all the needs, circle the ones that seem most essential to you in relation to what happened.  These are the ones you'll be sharing when the time comes. 


(a) Schedule a time and space to speak, rather than coming at the person out of the blue.
(b) Rip off and burn the TOP THIRD of the Worksheet (Judgments)Ok, you can shred it or destroy it some other way.
(c) Speak (or write) ONLY from the remaining parts of the Worksheet (Needs, Feelings, and Objective Description of Incident). This is the part that will increase your chances of actually being heard and will shift the conversation from destructive to constructive.
Breathe and be patient with yourself and the other person, especially the first few times you do this. Now go forth and try it! 


If the two of you have a history of not being able to hear each other, or you find that the person is still sounding "defensive" or "dismissive" when you try to speak from your feelings and needs, you may need to build up a little more trust over the next couple of conversations by doing one or more of the following:

(a) Try filling out an ADDITIONAL Worksheet for THEM or ask them to fill one out for themselves. To do a Worksheet for another person, make GUESSES about their Feelings and Needs (skip the Judgment section).

(b) Try introducing or explaining what you are doing.

(c) Try taking turns speaking and reflecting understanding (more on this in a post coming soon).

So, like I said before, I'd like to talk about what happened this morning. But I really want this conversation to be different. For both of us. So I used this exercise to write down some of my feelings and thoughts so I can sound less critical. Are you willing to try this out with me?
Sure. I guess.

And I'd also like to try this thing where we check what each person hears after the other person speaks. Just to help us feel like we are really listening to each other. Ok? Because I really want this conversation to be different for us. Are you willing to try that with me.
Yeah. Go ahead.

Ok, so I got home and the package I asked you to mail was on the table. [looking at your Worksheet] And I felt some anger and some sadness and some frustration. [Choosing one of the two circled needs for now] Because I really want to be able to trust you when we agree on stuff. [Deep breath] So, just wondering what you heard me say so far?


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3 Steps that Transform Sibling Conflict into Sibling Camaraderie

For a German version of this post, generously translated by a colleague, click here

Photo by eclaire on Flickr

My two kids, now ages 4 and 9, seem to have lots of minor conflicts. They argue in the backseat of the car because one of them wants "quiet time" while the other wants to sing or tell me about their day. They argue about the seating arrangement for dinner (who gets the special wooden chair, who gets to sit next to which parent). They argue about one being in the other's physical space ("Stop touching me!") and over toys and markers ("I was using that first!")

Over the years, I have handled these disputes using a combination of different strategies, including "letting them work it out", "teaching them effective communication skills (ha!)", "separating them", "giving each of them empathy," "mediating," "refereeing", "problem-solving" and "punishing."

None of these have been as effective, efficient, and satisfying to me (or to them!) as the method described below, a family-friendly adaptation of Dominic Barter's award winning Restorative Circles, which go by many different names around the world and are called Micro-Circles in our family.

What I love about the Micro-Circle process:

(a) it is fast and present-oriented - usually 6-10 minutes

(b) it is empowering for those involved - By engaging participants in hearing each other and creating their own solutions, you decrease both the sense of helplessness (we don't know how to solve this) - and powerlessness (we don't have choice in how things are gonna go) - which often result from having a third party (even a well-meaning one) be judge and jury to one's conflict.

(c) it seems to restore harmony and connection between participants - rather than leaving one or more of them feeling resentful or revengeful (as tends to happen when a third party, even a well-meaning one, imposes a solution)

(d) it is another way to live what I now believe to be the Most Important Thing To Know About Conflict



Take a deep calming breath and interrupt the dispute as early as possible in its cycle, if you believe it is escalating. If you have talked about using Micro-Circles ahead of time (which I recommend), offer a Micro-Circle and invite participants to sit down where they can see each other.

Optional: I have also found it helpful to set the tone by reminding everyone why and how you do Micro-Circles (ex: "Just a reminder that we choose to do Micro-Circles in our family [classroom, etc] because they help us hear each other - and come up with ideas that work for everyone. We will try to hear the meaning underneath each other's words and body-language. Everyone will get a turn to communicate and be heard."

For this phase, you have each participant take a turn sharing something they want the other(s) to know - followed by the Listener saying back their understanding of the message. I like to start with the person I believe is least able to listen (sometimes due to age, sometimes due to how upset they are).

Your tools for this phase are:

"What do you want Listener to know?" 

"What do you think Communicator wants you to know?"  (to discourage "parrot-phrasing" you can also do variations such as: "What is the meaning you hear underneath Communicator's words?"). Once people learn the idea, you can also use "What do you hear Communicator saying?" as shortcut.

"Is that it?"  (or "Is that what you wanted heard?")

Then, same exact questions in reverse (Listener communicating, previous Communicator now Listening).

Refusal to Speak or Reflect Meaning

If the first invited Listener says they don't want to reflect the meaning, no problem. Ask them to speak and the other to reflect. After they feel heard, they are likely to be more able to listen.

If a person says nothing in response to "What do you want X to know?" I still ask the Listener to express their understanding of the underlying message - since non-verbal communication is just as powerful (if not more so) than verbal communication.

For instance, my son has learned that when his sister has her arms crossed silently, with a scowl on her face, he may reflect something like "She wants me to know she is too angry to talk?" - which I follow with "Is that what you wanted heard?" and so on from there.


Once all parties have said they feel understood, you get THEM to come up with ideas for moving forward - while you sit back and enjoy.

Your tools for this phase are:

"Does anyone have any ideas for how to move forward with this?" (or "how to resolve this issue?"). I try not to use the phrase "solve this problem" because we want to emphasize that conflict is not a problem but an opportunity to work together, re-connect and understand each other better.

"Does that work for everyone?" (for me, the threshold here is "can everyone live with that idea" -  rather than "is everyone overjoyed with that idea?")

To demonstrate how this may look in real life, below are two transcripts of actual micro-circles I facilitated with children. As you will see, the kids don't have to be siblings - but it helps if they (and their care-takers) know you and trust you.



(Aaron: 8; Rachel: 3 1/2; Zach: 6 1/2)

Rachel: "Mom! Aaron and Zach won't let me play with them!"

Me: "Aaron, can you come here please? Thank you. Rachel, what do you want your brother to know?"

Rachel: "I want to play with you guys!!"

Me: "Aaron, what do you hear your sister saying?"

Aaron, rolling his eyes, his voice sounding annoyed, "She wants to play with us. But..."
Me, interrupting gently: "Hold on, just a minute. Rachel, is that it? Is that what you want your brother to know?"

Rachel: "Yes!"  [this completes one round - now we go to other child]

Me: "Ok, Aaron, what do you want your sister to know?"

Aaron: "I don't want her to play with us right now. I want some privacy. Not privacy, but like, Zach and I have not had a chance to play by ourselves all day. I just want some time with him."
Me: "Rachel, what do you hear your brother saying?"

Rachel, sounding quite sulky and unhappy: "He wants privacy. He wants to play with Zach alone."
Me: "Aaron, is that it?"

Aaron: "Yes."  [this completes round 2 - now we go to first child]

Me: "Rachel, is there anything else you want your brother to know?"

Rachel: "No."

Me: "Aaron, is there anything else you want Rachel to know?"

Aaron: "No." [this completes Mutual Understanding. Now go to Action Plan.]

Me: "Ok, Thank you. Now, does anyone have any ideas for how to solve this issue?"

Rachel: "NO."

Aaron: "Well, she can play with us if she doesn't ask any questions. About the game or like what we're doing."

Me, feeling rather astounded, which is how I usually feel at this phase: "Rachel, your brother says its ok to play with him and Zach if you don't ask any questions about the game. Does that work for you?"

Rachel, sounding quite satisfied: "Yes."

Me: "Ok great. Thank you guys."

The 3 kids then proceed to play succesfully together for about an hour. Aaron later reported that it worked out "ok" and that Rachel only asked one small question.



(Rachel: 3 1/2; Isaiah: 3 1/2)

We are at Isaiah's house and he has never participated in this process or observed it before.

Rachel: "Give me some! I want some!"

Isaiah: "No! Stop that!"

Isaiah's mom: "Hey guys. There is no need to fight. There are plenty of legos."

She gets up and gets a different container of legos and gives the new container to Rachel.

Rachel: "No! I want THOSE legos!"

Isaiah's mom: "Isaiah, can you share some of your legos with Rachel? Or take some of the ones from this box?"

Isaiah: "No! I want these. I was using them!"

Rachel is starting to screw up her face for some crying.

Me, coming over tentatively: "Do you mind if I try something different?"

Isaiah's mom: "No, go ahead."

Me: "Guys, guys. Hold on a second. I want to try something to help...
[after getting their attention and a pause in the noise] Rachel, what would you like Isaiah to know?"

Rachel: "I want to play with his legos! In that box!"

Me: "Isaiah, what do you hear Rachel saying?"

Isaiah: "Stupid doo doo!"

Me: "Rachel, is that it? Is that what you want Isaiah to know?"

Rachel, mildly amused: "No. I want his legos."

Me: "Isaiah, what do you hear Rachel saying now?"

Isaiah "She wants the legos. And all that blah blah blah stuff I don't want to hear."

Me: "Rachel, is that it?"

Rachel: "Yes." [this completes the first round; now we go to other child]

Me: "Ok, Isaiah, what would you like Rachel to know?"

Isaiah: "I don't want her to have the legos. I am USING them."

Me: "Rachel, what do you hear Isaiah saying?"

Rachel, sadly, "He doesn't want to share."

Me: "Isaiah, is that it? Is that what you want Rachel to know?"

Isaiah: "YEAH!" [this completes the second round; now we go to other child]

Me: "Rachel, is there anything else you want Isaiah to know?"

Rachel: "I am FRUSTRATED and ANGRY."

Me: "Isaiah, what do you hear Rachel saying?"

Isaiah: "She is frustrated and blah blah."

Me: "Rachel, is that it?"

Rachel: "Yes." [this completes third round; now we go to other child]

[After both children say they have nothing else to share, we go to Action Plan]

Me: "Thank you both. Now, does anyone have any ideas about how to solve this issue?"
Rachel: "NO."

Isaiah: "Yeah. Take that fish tank and spill it out and FLOOD this floor!"

Me: "Rachel, does that work for you? Will flooding the floor help solve this issue for you?"

Rachel, smiling a bit, "Nooo."  [incidentally, the ideas need to work for EVERYONE, so anyone can jump in and say that a certain idea does not work, including the moms! Also, at times, other kids who have been listenging will jump in with ideas. I simply take these and ask "does that work for everyone?"]

Me: "Ok, does anyone have any other ideas to help solve this issue?"

Isaiah, without speaking, takes the lego structure he was building, breaks it in half, gives one half to Rachel, reaches into her box and takes a bunch of legos out of that box for himself, and sits down looking satisfied. Rachel looks very happy too.

Me, astounded as usual: "Ok. Does this work for everyone?"

Both kids: "Yes."

The kids then seem to experience a complete shift in how they were interacting with each other. They begin to play together, sharing legos back and forth. At one point, Rachel scoots over to Isaiah and pets his hair. They play happily like this for another 20 minutes.

What happens if it doesn't work? 
It is important to me that micro-circles are a choice. Thus, if no one wants to reflect, I sometimes reflect one or the other for a few rounds or ask the kids if they want to do something different instead (ex: eat, separate). What's interesting is that many of our "failed" micro-circles (the ones that seem to fall apart before we get to Action Plan) wind up being successess - meaning the kids are actually "done" with the conflict and ready to do something positive - together or separately.

The important thing for me is to just keep offering it (and participating in it myself, in our case) week after week. Over time, it has become a part of how we do conflict in our family - along with yelling, threatening, sarcasm and "come here you crabby old thing and give me a big hug!" Hey - we're only human after all.

Other Caveats and Lessons Learned:
The Restorative Circles (RC) process, whether in its fullness (see below) or shorter adaptations (like Micro-Circles), tends to be more "restorative" when it is a choice - or one possible way the participants can approach conflict.
RC (and other restorative practices) tend to be more effective when you remember to attend to basic needs like safety, sleep and comfort. Or - as my son put it when he was asked by Barter (at a recent RC Learning Event) what he'd like to share from our family's micro-circles experience: "Make sure everyone eats first!"

Micro-Circles are an example of how RC can be adapted to fit smaller conflicts and attention spans. For more painful conflicts with symbolic meaning attached to the "act" (like when forgetting to take out the garbage becomes "you can't be trusted with anything"), we find it useful to engage in a longer adaptation of RC (what we call in our home Restorative Conversations, which take 30-40 minutes).
For very painful conflicts with lots of symbolic meaning (including violent acts and long-standing family conflicts) we find that a "full" RC process, as developed by Barter, helps create the most effective container for the conflict to be addressed. To facilitate the "full" RC process, we have found that apprenticeship learning with experienced RC facilitators has been key for us.

Restorative Circles (RC) is a community-owned process for moving through conflict developed by Dominic Barter in Brazil, where RCs are being used in hundreds of school districts, juvenile court systems, organizations and families. Recently, RC was recognized by a leading social innovation think tank (United Kingdom's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) as one of the 10 most "radically efficient" public services around the world.
RC uses facilitated dialogue to help members of a "conflict community" hear each other and come to shared agreements. In it's "fullness," RC involves several phases (pre-circle, circle and post-circle) and stages (mutual comprehension, self-responsibility and agreed action).
The Micro-Circle process (sometimes referred to as Cirandas Restourative in Brazil) is a shorter and lighter version of RC which can be used to address smaller disagreements - or disagreements between smaller people - while still (ideally) embodying the underlying principles of RC (e.g., voluntariness, shared power, conflict as an opportunity to grow rather than something to avoid, dialogue as a way of re-humanizing each other, etc).
Learn More: Check out videos and events on the RestorativeCircles.org website, participate in discussion and news on the RC Facebook page, or learn about nuts and bolts on the Restorative-Circles Yahoo group

March 2011 Update: In response to questions from readers and friends trying out the process, I have written Part 2, which combines the most Frequently Answered Questions.

Opportunities to learn Restorative Circles facilitation with Dominic Barter:
  • Colorado Restorative Justice Summit: August 9-11, 2012
  • Rochester, NY Restorative Circles Learning Event: August 18-23, 2012
Opportunity to explore non-violence (and RC) with Dominic Barter and Kit Miller of Gandhi Institute:
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