We’re entering the season of URPs or UREPs if it helps to remember the “E” for episodes (Unwanted repetitive episodes) in our conversations. As you may have read in The Secret Handshake and It’s All Politics and in the story from my debut novel Shadow Campus, where a brother and sister can’t extricate themselves from a dysfunctional way of relating, we are often creatures of bad habits. For families and friends, these next two weeks are a time when URPs are likely to creep into our conversations and put a damper on the holidays.
You may know that one of your relatives or friends is easily provoked by the mention of politics. He states his opinion, you state an opposing one and off the two of you go into a dysfunctional pattern that affects everyone.
Why not take this knowledge about someone you care about and use it as a edge against what “ALWAYS” seems to happen. We all have unwanted repetitive episodes with people who are close to us at work, home and in our communities. We have them with our children. In class, I’ve often used a simple one as an example. A college student comes home for the holidays. He and his dad are washing the car. This is how their URP goes:
Dad: So, when are you getting your hair cut?
Son: I like it like this, Dad.
Dad: It’s the holidays and you look like a mess.
Son: Let’s not go there again.
Dad: What is that supposed to mean?
Son: You know.
Dad: You’ll just upset your mother.
Son: If I’m such a problem, why don’t I just go back to school?
Dad: If that’s how you’re going to talk to me and your mother, go ahead.
The father and son in this scenario may have been looking forward to seeing each other for some time. But they slipped into a pattern they do nearly every time they get together and so they put the holidays and their relationship in jeopardy.
When we’re creatures of pattern to this extent, we are oblivious to the choice points we have in every conversation. We react rather than respond because we’ve done these patterns for so long that we’re in them before we know it.
That doesn’t have to be the case. Communication is a lot like chess. Every move that one person makes, limits or expands the move of the other. That means we can be victims of our conversations or active in managing them. We just need to know how we’re letting ourselves be limited and slightly change what we’d normally do.
What could the son have said to stop this URP in its tracks? Perhaps “I’m thinking about doing that, Dad.” If that’s untrue, then “I’m going to go in the house after we finish here, comb it, and decide what to do about it.” That would at least break the pattern. The Dad could still slip back into the URP by saying, “Well, you should just go get it cut.” A possible response to this: “You’re probably right” or “I wonder where to do that.” This second one is a “one-across” move, meaning it does not acquiesce or challenge, but is neutral. Even, “I’ve been so busy studying I hadn’t thought of it” is a possible choice that doesn’t disagree or agree. The father could make similar choices to alter the course of the conversation.
One of the best gifts we can give is to not allow our conversations, especially URPS, to ruin the holidays. Cut someone some slack. Respond in a slightly unexpected way. “Hmmm, that’s a thought” not said sarcastically could be useful. Talking about how you tend to talk can work too. “This is when I usually disagree with you and ruin the dinner conversation. But you actually have a point.” That doesn’t mean you agree. It acknowledges that the other person’s thought has some merit. Most do. It also avoids an URP. That’s a gift to everyone at the dinner table with you or gathered around to open gifts.
Besides, it’s actually a great feeling to know that you can manage a conversation onto a positive path. The best of negotiators do this. Not being predictable is an important skill to develop. If you are predictable, more skillful communicators can manage you. So, why not try tweaking this holiday season? It costs so little and may be the best gift of all.
Have a merry, happy URPless holiday.