- Do you feel unable to express your thoughts and emotions assertively?
- Do you feel like you are treading on eggshells around people because you are afraid of hurting their feelings?
- Do you have anger management issues?
There are many reasons why communicating can sometimes feel like a minefield! Perhaps you tend to suppress what you need to say because you don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. Or maybe expressing your thoughts always seems to result in an argument. There are techniques that you can use that will make a real difference to your interactions with others. Successful communication is a process that you can learn. I’m a big fan of the assertive communication tool ‘The Sh*t Sandwich’. Not a pleasant analogy, I know, and yet it is a perfect way to describe the three-layer process that can be used to present something you may find hard to deliver and may be difficult for another person to digest! The Sh*t Sandwich is a fantastic assertive communication tool that enables you to structure problematic conversations with others as gently as possible. The three layers consist of empathy, honesty, and saying what you want to happen next.
- Empathy. Starting your Sandwich with a few empathic reflections will help the other person to feel heard and understood. As a result, they will be more likely to listen and try and understand what you need to say. Empathising is an ability to understand and feel another person’s world as they do. You may have heard the metaphors ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’ and ‘seeing through someone else’s eyes’. Striving to understand another person’s perspective is a vital skill. However, it is important to use empathy and not sympathy. Empathy is trying to see the other person’s view of a particular difficulty whereas sympathy is expressing sadness from your own understanding. When you are in conflict with another person, sympathising can be perceived as patronising.
- Honesty. This part of the sandwich is the area that relates to the conflict or the part that is troubling you. The key to successful communication in this area is to speak from your own experience without any metaphorical ‘finger pointing’. When you point or wag your finger with ‘you did this’ or ‘you said that’, the other person is likely to react by defending themselves or retreating. You are more likely to be heard and understood if you talk from your own experience and feelings. Remember that your purpose is to discuss what is troubling you without it turning into an argument. So the golden rule is to eliminate ‘you’ as much as possible and use the ‘I’ word instead. When you cannot explain what you need to say without using the word ‘you’, try using the word ‘we’ – because in reality, in any given situation, the experience is always shared. It is also important to take full responsibility for your thoughts, emotions and actions. No one can make you think, feel or do anything. How you react to another person’s behaviour says a lot more about your own internal process and life experiences. When you assign blame to someone else, you are not taking responsibility for your actions, and you lose the ability to make an accurate or honest assessment of the situation. This will cause others to want to defend their experience.
- What you want to happen next. This is an important part of this assertive tool. What you want to happen may seem obvious to you, and we can all be guilty of expecting people to read our minds. Yet to clarify what you want clearly helps the other person to fully understand you. It is also important that you consider the other person’s needs when you explain what you want.
Here is a relatively straightforward example of how you could structure a Sandwich. Let’s suppose that you want to address a friend’s timekeeping because they are habitually late.
Empathy – the first layer. Start your Sandwich by focusing on trying to see the situation through their eyes. You could say something like, ‘You look really flustered. You have so much on your plate, don’t you? It must be exhausting trying to keep on top of everything’. As I said earlier, when a person feels understood they will not feel the need to explain or make excuses, and they will be more likely to listen and try and understand your point of view.
Honesty – the second layer. Remember to speak from your own experience and take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings. For example, you could say ‘I thought that we said we would meet at 12pm? I’m really not very good at waiting, and there are loads of things I want to do today. I’m feeling agitated’. An example of blaming and ‘finger pointing’ would be ‘You’re late again! You knew what time we had agreed. What’s your excuse this time?’
What you want – the third layer. What you may want is for the other person to be on time from now on, but taking into consideration their needs, this may be unrealistic. A more balanced request might be to ask if from now on they would call or message you to let you know they are going to be late.
Pressing the pause button. The presence of strong feelings can make it difficult to structure an assertive Sh*t Sandwich logically. You may also find that you are naturally better at expressing one layer of the Sandwich than you are at expressing the others. Whilst you are getting used to this way of communicating it can be useful to press the ‘pause button’ and take time out to think through the three layers of your Sandwich. Pressing the emotional pause button can be a really useful first step towards being able to untangle your thoughts and emotions. Consider delivering your Sandwich via email. Putting your Sandwich in writing gives the other person the opportunity to re-read what you have written and fully digest what you needed to say.
Taking timeout. I often encourage couples that I work with to agree on a key word or phrase that can be used as a red flag. Something obscure like ‘red banana’ can be used to mean that you need time out to process your thoughts and feelings. It’s not easy to take a step back from a difficult situation and think about the best way of responding. Yet when ‘timeout’ is respected by both parties, it can be a really effective way of regaining control, even when emotions are running high.
Focusing on your breath. Becoming aware of your breath is a highly effective tool that will enable you to connect to a place of calm in the midst of pressure. Try counting to three as you breathe in, then count to three as you breathe out. Notice how balancing this feels. Giving your full attention to your breath will enable you to actively listen to your internal processing with all your senses. Doing this will help you to communicate more clearly.
Clarifying. It is always a good idea to clarify your understanding of a situation. Here is a great example of how easy it is to jump to conclusions: A little girl asks her mother, ‘Mummy, where did I come from?’ The mother, believing the time has come to give ‘the talk’ about the ‘birds and the bees’ takes a deep breath, and explains. The little girl, now with big eyes, says in confusion, ‘But mummy… my friend said that he was from London!’. The moral of this story is to be careful and aware of the assumptions you make, and give others the opportunity to explain. Also take the time to investigate the facts. Let’s go back and take another look at the hypothetical issue of our habitually late friend. When the friend was asked, ‘I thought that we said we would meet at 12pm?’ they could have answered, ‘Oh, didn’t we say 12.30pm?’. Being clear of the facts can save you a lot of distress, so being able to clarify them is a really valuable tool.
Choose your words wisely. The very first word that you use when asking a question can set the whole tone for what you are about to say. This can, in turn, make a difference to how you are heard. For example, starting a question with the word ‘why’ can sound accusing. By contrast, the words ‘how’, ‘what,’ where’, and ‘when’ set a softer, more inquisitive tone. Feel the difference in tone between these two questions: ‘Why did you go out last night?’ and ‘Where did you go out last night?’. The words ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ will help to open up conversations and encourage a more natural flow.
Once you have mastered the assertive communication tool ‘The ‘Sh*t Sandwich’ you will be able to guard against drama-oriented behaviour and, as a result, greatly improve your quality of life with others. It is never too late to start building your emotional resilience. If you would like to explore further any communication difficulties that you may be experiencing, please don’t hesitate to contact me on +44 (0) 7802 692443 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.