A Hacker’s Guide to Better Communication

We were in California last week when a family plopped down next to us at the beach. They were miserable, complaining to high heaven and snipping at each other left and right.

The happiness scale

The happiness scale

Like many other exchanges I’ve overheard between loved ones, their interaction was pointed and painful. “Stop being so annoying!” the mother snapped at her son.


Why do we talk to each other like this?

Most of us, I notice, tend to snap at our loved ones when we’re tired or stressed out. The crazy thing is that we expect something nicer in return. We think that by lashing out at our loved one, we’ll “whip them back into shape.”

But here’s the thing: coming down on your spouse or your child like that only makes things worse. Because nobody reacts to criticism or thinly-veiled hostility with love and kindness. Unless you’re the Dalai Lama, that is.

The rest of us just fight back.

And before you know it, things have gotten seriously out of control.

Nico and Gabriel collecting kelp at the Ano Nuevo beach outside of Santa Cruz. (Note: the angry/bickering family's off screen, being angry. I think the mother was actually yelling at her children not to get

Nico and Gabriel collecting kelp at the Ano Nuevo beach outside of Santa Cruz. (Note: the angry/bickering family’s off screen.)

So why do we do it?

Because this is how a lot of us talk to ourselves.

When think we need to come down hard on ourselves when things aren’t working. We need to get our act together. Try harder. Be more disciplined. We need to have more willpower!

In self-help circles, this self-talk is called the inner critic. Most folks use their inner critic to motivate themselves to become better people.

There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work.

Not only that, but it backfires.

Listen to this:

If you think the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control…. In contrast, self-compassion—being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure—is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

–Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct

Surprising, right? Most of us were taught that we need to try harder if we’re lacking in some arena or another. Try harder, be better, try harder! It might as well be the American mantra.

McGonigal’s work shows us this isn’t true. What self-criticism does do is keep us stuck. It also makes us less apt to change into the person we want to become.

This is why coming down hard on ourselves when we’ve slipped up only backfires. It leaves us worse off than where we started.

If criticism backfires this badly when we talk to ourselves this harshly, you can imagine what it does when we speak to our loved ones in such a manner.

Today, try this instead:

If it’s driving you crazy that your husband’s been on the couch all day, don’t yell at him. Instead, ask him what’s up. What’s going on with him that’s got him on that couch?

Then listen to his answer.

Teamwork, folks. (By this point, the family was in the ocean and the mother was curious about the kelp my children were playing with.)

Teamwork, folks.

Maybe he’s upset about something at work. Or worried about his brother. You won’t know what’s going on underneath his behavior just by looking. To get there, you have to ask.

Or try this with your wife. Let’s say she’s spent the last hour complaining about your neighbor. Instead of telling her she’s driving you bonkers, ask her what’s around this whole issue that’s got her so upset.

Then listen to her answer.

I promise you—this simple little technique will open doors you never could have imagined.

A lot of times, whatever’s going on with our loved one has nothing to do with us at all. And yet, it’s so easy for us to internalize it and take it personally. Once we get ourselves out of the equation, things usually work themselves out fairly easily. Especially when we’re showing our spouse that we love and support them instead of yelling at them.

To get there,all you have to do is this:

For real, folks. This might just be the simplest thing you can do to turn your relationship around.

Try this technique with your children, too. When your daughter’s dragging her feet as you’re trying to get out the door, ask her what’s going on. Why is she moving so slowly?

Remember: be curious.

Maybe she’s worried about going to school, or upset about a friend. But you won’t know until you ask.

The more you start to do this with others, the more easily you can do with yourself. And vice versa.

Which really is a win-win situation, for everyone involved.

Compassion breeds compassion. Kindness breeds kindness.

Arguing, bitching and moaning? Well, you already know what they breed. And we’ve had enough of that crap for one day, haven’t we.

OK, had to bring this pic back one more time because it's so damn perfect. It really is up to us what we choose! (Scale and super yummy berries and pie from Swanton Berry Farm, Davenport, CA. Be sure to stop if you're in the area--so yummy!)

OK, had to bring this pic back one more time because it’s so damn perfect. It really is up to us what we choose! (Scale and super yummy berries and pie from Swanton Berry Farm, Davenport, CA. Be sure to stop if you’re in the area–so yummy!)

So go ahead and choose. Because kindness and compassion win over criticism any day. As do laughter and joy.

Remember that mother on the beach that I mentioned earlier? Well, her daughter finally broke away from all that bickering and made it down to the water. Bit by bit, as she played in the waves, the rest of the family started to loosen up.

Before long, her brother joined her. As they laughed and played in the water, the mother started taking photos, and the father eventually joined in. By the time we left, they were finally smiling.

You really do have a choice.

(For more on this topic, read Tara Mohr’s wonderful new book, Playing Big, which should be required reading for women everywhere.)

Now it’s your turn. Leave a comment below telling us how kindness and self-compassion helped shift a difficult situation in your life.

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