He said: So, I hear you got the promotion. Another woman sleeps her way to the top.
Silent at first, unnerved by this sarcastic taunt, she took a moment to consider her response and then said: You think that’s what folks in the office believe? Can you help me track that rumor down?
Surprising. Not even a hint of a defensive reaction. That’s because she was sponging, a technique I learned some years ago from Deborah Pearce, a teacher, coach and master of the art of communication.
The concept of sponging is so valuable, I eagerly describe it to colleagues, friends, mediation clients and anyone else who will listen. It’s a way of responding when verbally attacked that turns a conversation in a positive direction instead of allowing it to spiral into negativity.
To experiment with this approach, this is the mindful direction that is called for: When confronted with a hostile remark, or an insult, even veiled sarcasm, avoid an immediate response. Instead, consciously absorb the belief of the speaker, soak it up like a sponge. Frame your answer from that vantage point, and watch the wind empty from your rival’s sails.
Divorced mother to her former spouse: When the kids leave your house for school, they look like they got dressed in the dark or slept in their clothes.
Father’s likely automatic response: I haven’t noticed them looking so great when they come over here from your place.
But father when sponging: It’s a problem. By the time they get to breakfast, it’s too late to make them change. How do you handle it?
Divorce lawyer who represents a husband anticipating a sharp decline in income conveys this information to his counterpart. Wife’s lawyer’s likely automatic response: Give me a break. That’s what they all say.
But when sponging, she says: Of course he’s anxious about paying support. Who wouldn’t be? Show me how he has documented his income projections.
Wife to husband taking part in mediation: For years you never had time for the kids. Now you’re Mr. Mom.
Husband’s likely automatic reply: When’s the last time you actually cooked them a meal?
But when sponging, he says: You’re right. I relied on you more than I had any right to. I’m going to need your help learning the ropes with the kids.
Caustic remarks raise the temperature of any discussion and once a defensive response is made, antagonism escalates and little gets accomplished. Conflict needs to be diffused, not escalated. But this takes practice, hence the need for a critical pause in order to remember to bring the technique to mind when emotions are stirred, for responding self-protectively, even aggressively for most of us, is still the first line of defense.
I recently received an email from a disgruntled mediation client suggesting that he was wasting his time and money in our sessions, as few agreements had been reached. My initial reaction was resentment at being devalued, and I wanted to point out his negative contributions to the experience so far. But, after a pause, I sponged and acknowledged his frustration, and the difficult emotional climate, only then offering some suggestions for progress. He expressed gratitude and eagerness to continue.
In all of the examples above, exchanges that actually took place, a useful, calm discussion followed. Skilled negotiators work to set a positive emotional tone. Yet discord often seeps into even the best planned conversations.
The next time, if the goal is understanding and agreement, pause, and visualize a sponge.