For conversations that go beyond “I’m so frustrated,” Aslinia recommends setting some ground rules.
To start, identify the objective. Are you working through a colleague’s failure to meet expectations? A partner’s transgressions? Your uncle’s voting record?
Whatever the topic, determine what’s OK and what’s not.
For example, in a couple’s therapy session, Aslinia will recommend determining what the goal of a conversation is and then establish guardrails like not discussing other family members (e.g., no “your mama” comments) and no insults.
Outside the therapist’s office, boundaries might include no raised voices and no profanity. (And definitely no physical violence.) If tempers flare and these rules are broken, you can recommend returning to the conversation later, either in person when you’ve calmed down, or even by email or text.
After all, you can explain and forgive behavior, but some things simply can’t be unsaid.
As evidenced by an alarming number of public interactions, unestablished boundaries can lead to a lot of unpleasantness. “It’s usually harder to keep your mouth shut than to just jump in and regret it later,” Aslinia says. Self-awareness and self-control go a long way toward avoiding the sort of situations on planes, for instance, when two people with opposing viewpoints on the necessity of masks decide to engage.
For people who know and like each other, on the other hand, the road to productive conversations is paved with mutually agreed-upon guidelines for behavior as well as a common set of goals. Is the point to understand where each person is coming from? To find middle ground? Or to change the other person’s mind?
If it’s the last of these, Aslinia offers a helpful suggestion. “One of the questions I often ask my clients who have severe disagreements with no end in sight is, ‘Is it more important for you to win, or is it more important for you to be happy?’ Because sometimes those are exclusive.”
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