I know you don’t speak Yiddish but

Gaaaaaaah! You’re barely two minutes into the conversation and all of a sudden you’re in a fight. Or not in a fight, but irritable enough to get in one. The words have somehow gotten twisted together. Everything is stuck. The thing you meant is getting tangled up with the thing your partner in Miscommunication 101 thinks you meant. You’re in a plonter as they say in Yiddish. You know, a confused, messy web-like disaster. A pain in the tush of a mistake of a hard time.

Your patterns are never more present than in your communication. There’s a ton of information to pick up on — when you can stay calm enough to listen in and figure out what’s going on. And that pretty much sums up your mission when you’re working on any aspect of your issues: 1. stay centered and 2. scoop up information about your patterns so you can use it to tweak them.

In this newsletter I’ll throw out another quick, user-friendly technique for getting calm fast, but first I want to talk about a specific communication pattern that really needs some attention: the Hedge.

Excuse me, but you’re about to trip over that hedge

The “hedge” is a very useful concept, and my use of it comes courtesy of Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin (linguist, writer and one of my all-time favorite thinkers). The hedge is a linguistic maneuver that allows you to preface the thing you’re going to say with a disclaimer — it’s a kind of pre-emptive backtracking. Elgin calls it “stealing the listener’s response by predicting it and announcing the prediction.”

For example, when someone says to you, “You’re probably going to hate this idea, but …”, this person is setting up a protective shield of sorts. You either have to pretend you like the idea, or you admit you don’t like it and then the person says, “Oh, see, I knew you wouldn’t. I told you so.”

Or take Elgin’s somewhat goofier example: “I know this is a silly thing to say, but I’m afraid of plums.” The hedge obstructs the pathways of communication, makes the hedger out to be manipulative and/or insecure, and also leads to uncomfortable situations for all parties involved.

Trimming the hedge (meet the need)

What’s really being said here? A hedge is a way of saying, “promise you won’t hate me” or “promise you won’t be mad”. Which is, of course, a promise that can’t be made. What’s really happening here is a need: for understanding, acceptance, reassurance, listening or comfort. So get in there and meet the unspoken need. Speak the need out loud.

When you catch yourself about to hedge, stop and pay attention. What are you really wanting to say? What is the need hidden in your hedge? For example, “I know you’re not going to like this, but” might really mean, “I am afraid that you will be mad at me.” Recognize the emotion (fear) and the need (reassurance). Next, meet the need with some conscious, honest compassion (“Even though I have this fear, I am allowed to have fear. I’m human, this fear doesn’t define me, it’s just a temporary part of what’s going on for me right now.”).

Now that you know what the issue is and you have met your need, address the issue as an issue instead of hiding it in the shrubbery. I mean, the hedge. In this example you could say, “Hey, I want to talk with you about our finances. I’m feeling nervous bringing this up because I need to know that you are going to listen to me. I’m also afraid that you’ll be angry because last time we talked there was a lot of yelling, and I want us to get better at communicating.”

If you are NOT the Hedge-er

Someone hedging at you and it’s driving you crazy? First: meet your own need. (“Even though this is driving me crazy, I recognize that this person is having trouble expressing a fear or a need. I am allowed to have this frustration. I am getting better at practicing patience.”)

Next step: practice being a language detective! Recognize the hedge, determine the person’s need, and see what you can do to help. For example, “It seems like you are feeling worried about discussing this issue with me. Is there something I can do to make this conversation more comfortable?”

Emergency Calm Technique

Sometimes, you’re already in too much of a plonter to step out of the hedges. In this case, apply one of the emergency calm techniques that I’m always going on about. Try this one (great when you’re on the phone with a champion hedger)!

Take the index and middle fingers (both hands) to center of chin, pressing gently. Bring the thumbs directly below them to the underside of the jaw. Keep ring fingers and pinkies curled into the hands or in any other comfortable position. If you’re seated you can rest your elbows on a table or on your knees. The pressure of the fingers should be palpable, but not painful. Close your eyes and breathe slowly. Count to twelve.

Everything a tiny bit better now? It should be.

Want more? Two great resources and a chance to support your local bookstore . . .

1. Suzette Haden Elgin, The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense
(Tons of useful information about how we use language, how our brains work, how to change our communication patterns).
2. Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
(A useful guide for effective communication, using compassion, honesty and integrity — the language is kinda cheesy, but the concepts are absolutely on target and you’ll get all sorts of value from this practice).

And feel free to share any of your own examples of hedge/counter-hedge.