In other words, I was focused on my intention while Eleanor was focused on the consequences. We were having two different conversations. In the end, we both felt unacknowledged, misunderstood, and angry....
So how do you get out of this downward spiral?
It's stunningly simple, actually. When you've done something that upsets someone — no matter who's right — always start the conversation by acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person. Save the discussion about your intentions for later. Much later. Maybe never. Because, in the end, your intentions don't matter much.
What if you don't think the other person is right — or justified — in feeling the way they do? It doesn't matter. Because you're not striving for agreement. You're going for understanding....
The hardest part is our emotional resistance. We're so focused on our own challenges that it's often hard to acknowledge the challenges of others. Especially if we are their challenge and they are ours. Especially when they lash out at us in anger. Especially when we feel misunderstood. In that moment, when we empathize with them and their criticism of our behavior, it almost feels like we're betraying ourselves.
But we're not. We're just empathizing.
Here's a trick to make it easier. While they're getting angry at you, imagine, instead, that they're angry at someone else. Then react as you would in that situation. Probably you'd listen and let them know you see how angry they are.
And if you never get to explain your intentions? What I have found in practice — and this surprised me — is that once I've expressed my understanding of the consequences, my need to justify my intentions dissipates.
That's because the reason I'm explaining my intentions in the first place is to repair the relationship. But I've already accomplished that by empathizing with their experience. At that point, we're both usually ready to move on.
And if you do still feel the need? You'll still have the opportunity, once the other person feels seen, heard, and understood.