So far, we’ve covered a ton of ground. We’ve talked about how our biology, our early relationships, and all of our experiences impact who we are as adult human people. The fact is, those things impact us on a daily basis. In our last post, we talked about how when we enter into a relationship, we bring all of those things with us and there can be a collision of thoughts and ideas and expectations.
Sometimes, we learn to navigate that tension pretty well.
Other times, we need a little help and that help often involves learning how to communicate well with the people we love. There are two key parts to communicating. You’ve got to be able to speak and you’ve absolutely got to be able to listen.
Let’s start with the easy one: learning to speak.
How to Speak
If you’re ever going to be able to communicate with your partner, learning to talk about what’s going on is crucial. Too often, our conversations end up going south really quickly. We might say something that triggers our partner who quickly becomes defensive. Just like we’ve talked about before, when you become defensive, inside your brain your limbic system goes wild and your ability to think rationally goes offline for a while. At this point, you may as well walk away and come back later.
Ultimately, we want to be able to communicate well and there are a few key things to remember.
First, remember how we talked about the importance of knowing what’s going on inside yourself? That’s going to be key before you engage in a conversation. Maybe your partner is doing something that is just getting under your skin. Maybe you’re being critiqued about something but you’re not in a space to hear it. Being tuned into the emotions that are active inside you is so important here.
Secondly, don’t make it about your partner – make it about you. You cannot speak for anyone else. We’ve already said that your loved one has their own world of experience, their own unique history and, as well as you might know them, there are so many complexities that only they can really be aware of. So, when you speak, do so from a place of personal ownership.
A therapist might call it using an I-statement. The idea is simple – you speak from a place of your own expertise: yourself! And, speak first about your own feelings.
Here are a couple of scenarios. Let’s go back to the idea that you’re feeling criticized or critiqued about something. Maybe you just cooked dinner for your partner after a long day at work and they say that it was OK but that if they were doing it, they would have added more spice. Or, maybe you just finished cleaning your guest room and your partner criticizes how you’ve organized the closet. These might seem simple but – believe me – they can quickly escalate. As hard as it might seem, it’s helpful to respond without being defensive.
“I feel under appreciated right now. I know there are probably a lot of ways to do this and the way I chose might be different from how you would do it, but I would like to know that you appreciate all of my hard work.”
What about this response makes it helpful? It starts with I. If I were responding in a less helpful way, I might say, “You ALWAYS criticize me!” or I might ask, “Why can’t you just appreciate what I do for us??” Neither of these are especially helpful. Even if these seem like they might accurately describe how you’re feeling there are problems. Starting with you automatically sets off other people’s defenses which we know to be unproductive.
Secondly, there’s the accuracy and honest about your feelings. Saying, “I feel under appreciated right now.” is exactly true. No one can argue with how you feel. You alone know what’s happening inside you. Compare that with the insinuation that your partner is totally critical. Your partner does not always criticize you. No matter how infrequent, there are times when they don’t. Granted, when you’re feeling attacked, it can be hard to acknowledge the better times. Still, the all-or-nothing motif that the word always introduces doesn’t acknowledge that your partner can sometimes show you appreciation.
Finally, there is a calm and rational explanation of what you want and need: you need to know that your work is appreciated. This is completely reasonable. The less helpful responses don’t include this, because there’s no room for rationality when you’re in defensive mode. Keeping your calm and staying rational help you to fully express the hurt you feel and the need that wasn’t met.
Otherwise, it can be a guessing game. Or a boxing match.
Listening Like a Therapist
Of course, being able to talk about how you’re feeling and the hurt that you’re experiencing is only one half of what needs to happen to communicate well. What about for the listener? I fully believe that listening is one of the hardest skills to master but one of the most important too! I’ve been privileged over the past year as I’ve been finishing up my Masters degree to be able to sit with a lot individuals and couples. In that time, I’ve had to learn the art of listening well. What does it mean to listen like a therapist?
The first part involves a sense of responsibility. When I would be listening to my clients, I felt a sense of duty to give them my full attention and to be as tuned in as I possibly could to what they were communicating. Curiosity should be the dominant force. If the speaker is communicating well (i.e. if they’re using I-statements and speaking with ownership of their feelings), then there is no need to pick apart what they are saying or become defensive. Instead, when a speaker is being heard well, it actually invites them to continue being honest.
Curiosity is about more than just paying attention to the words that a person is saying. There are two ways to communicate – the things you say and the things you don’t say. Curiosity means paying attention to the words and all of the other nonverbals too!
We also want to make sure that the speaker feels safe. Remember what we said about those early relationships? We need to feel safe! This is as true when we are adults having relational conflict as it is when we are infants and completely dependent on our caretakers. When we don’t become defensive or angry about how the speaker feels, it fosters a sense of safety.
When a speaker is speaking, we have said that they should make it about them and not anyone else. Well, when you’re listening, it should also be about them. Therapists do a lot of work around staying present and keeping their own issues from entering into the therapy room. When you’re really listening to your spouse, this is the aim. Just like a speaker has to know what is going on inside of them, so does a listener. You have to be aware of the emotions and the triggers that you’re experiencing before you can ever hope to manage them well enough to listen to someone else’s difficulties. This only ever comes with practice!
Another important responsibility for the listener is to feedback what the speaker is saying. Therapists reflect the things that their clients communicate; often, they put names to emotions that the client may not even realize were there. How that looks for the listener in our scenario is to, first, provide confirmation that you’re hearing what the speaker is saying. “You’re feeling like I don’t care that you’ve done all of this work because the first thing I said to you when I walked in was a criticism.” Now the speaker knows that you’re not in a defensive posture and that you’re engaged with listening.
But it also does something else which, as it turns out, is one of the most important parts of this whole process. It validates the speaker. That’s a fancy way of saying that the speaker knows that their emotions make sense or that they are not off the wall for feeling the way that they do. It lets the speaker know that they are still loved and valuable – that they are still safe – after they have expressed how they feel.
Emotions, remember, are automatic. We can’t control what surfaces for us at any one time. There was something about the speaker’s experience that, when presented with that combination of effort and criticism, something painful was triggered. I believe that the healthy way to deal with this is to be open and honest about how we are feeling. But that requires a sense of safety that the speaker won’t be rejected or dismissed for simply expressing what’s happening inside for them.
Remember, everything communicates. When your partner feels safe and secure enough to share how they feel it communicates that they want to be honest with you, that they do, in fact, feel safe, and that they want to move past whatever is happening. And, when you work on your own ability to be present and to listen to things that are often difficult, you’re communicating too. You’re communicating that you value the other person, that you love them for who they are, and that you’ll love them unconditionally, regardless of what emotions and triggers they may be experiencing.
And here’s what all of this sets up.
Intimacy is what we all long for. Intimacy is more than just physical closeness. It’s more than just knowing another’s story. Intimacy is about a sense of collaboration. It’s about a set of shared experiences and aspirations. It’s about two individuals deciding to come together, not as one flesh, but as co-creators of something that is bigger and better and beyond anything that they could be by themselves.
This is intimacy.
And, Intimacy is Everything.