We are arguing over something stupid. A silly-assed, niggling something. My partner is criticizing me between bites of sautéed chicken and broccoli and something she says triggers me. Suddenly I am seven years old…sitting in the back seat of our mini-pea green pinto station wagon with the wood paneling sides. My little sister and I are fighting over who has the prettiest hair. She calls me a name, I squeeze her arm really hard. She scratches, I kick, Dad pulls the car over and smacks the crap out of both of us.
Emotional reactivity is the number one cause of broken relationships and misunderstandings. When a loved one says something that triggers anger, hurt or fear, our childishly defensive reactions can suddenly sever all communication.
Unfortunately, because our need to be heard and understood is so powerful, when we are not given the chance to express ourselves, our feelings often become repressed and our judgement distorted; He drives too slow, she eats spaghetti incorrectly, he overuses the word “plethora,” and suddenly a cavalcade of your lover’s annoyances turns into a silly altercation over a seven-layer salad at a holiday barbecue.
Healthy communication requires energy, patience and concentrated
attention. Steven Covey in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” says that to be understood, you must first seek to understand.” In order to truly understand another person’s experience, one must first learn to listen. Although we all think we are a good listeners, the very sad sack fact of life is that so few of us have the desire to listen, much less the skills.
In school we are taught to read and to write, but we are not taught how to listen to one another. Listening like anything else is a skill to be developed and crafted. It requires time, attention, dedication and commitment.
After reading 600 different books on conflict resolution, I have come up with three simple rules that have served me well – when I’ve been able to apply them:
1. Thou Shalt Not Interrupt thy Partner –
Allowing our partner to express anger and frustration helps detoxify the situation and is an excellent way to release bitterness and resentment. As painful as it is to hear criticism from an angry loved one, we must somehow resist the powerful impulse to interrupt them. Listening without interrupting helps to establish trust. So just sit back, take a deep breath and let your partner crack open a fresh one.
2. Thou Shalt Not Take it Personally.
Anger is never really about anger, behind it usually lies deep feelings that can range anywhere from hurt and shame to fear and guilt. Angry partners don’t want to hurt us; they simply want a chance to express themselves. Therefore, it is important that we do not see their ghastly words of criticism as rejection or blame, but instead as a specific behavior of ours that just might need to be examined, mulled over and possibly modified.
3.Thou Shalt Not Cross Complain.
If you are coming up with your own list of foibles and faux pas, chances are you are not listening to your partner. A better choice is to re-focus your attention and try to understand try to feel what he/she is feeling. This automatically takes your mind off of our own feelings, and allows you stay engaged and connected to your partner. Once he/she feels heard and understood, you in turn, will earn the right to also be heard and understood and deserve the same attention and focus.
Breaking old patterns cold turkey is extremely difficult. It is far easier to replace it with a new one. So in conjunction with our thou shalt nots, I offer a few things to substitute for interrupting and cross-complaining.
1, Request elaboration - Seek Clarification
A great way to distract you from that wildly intense need to interrupt is to instead, ask some questions or examples. Questions are a gentle way to tell your partner hey I am here and I am listening and I am interested.
2. Acknowledge Her Point of View
Let your partner know you understand what he is feeling, and that you get her point. Sometimes a simple, quick summary of his words can do the trick.
3. Allow For Silence –
Silence allows your partner to explore deeper feelings without the fear of interruption. Quite often words can get in the way, so allowing for silence lets him know that you are willing to follow along at her pace.
Listening to understand is a daunting task that takes concentration,
unselfish restraint and a mutual commitment to making it work.
As a new couple’s counselor-in-training, I encourage my clients to experiment with some new ways of relating. Instead of letting things build up to the point of near fisticuffs at a birthday party, set aside time to express feelings, concerns and irritations, deal with whatever arises and then discover the power to release anger and resentment, and move on. With a new and improved attitude and communication style, couples might be able to avoid 2nd grade “I know you are but what am I?” syndrome, remain in the present, remain engaged and hopefully work together towards mutual understanding.