Tools for Communication

[The following article is a modified transcription of a special session I gave to a couple who asked me to teach them the principles of good relating, and dealing with the problems in relating to each other. Feel free to print it out as it is 12 full pages. May it serve you well.]

1. When you're both off center.

Question: "What do I do when my partner starts talking about a small topic, and then explodes with it. The argument grows and grows, no longer arguing about the first point. It becomes a contest of who's right, who's going to win."

The times that are hardest for a couple are when both people are down. By down, I mean sensitive, touchy, tired, achy, off balance, off center, getting sick, whatever. When both people are off center, that's when fights really escalate. Because if one person is centered and the other one isn't, and the first one overreacts, you just respond, "What's that about?" And that shows you one of the solutions.

Each of us has to learn how to live as a centered being, to monitor when we're getting off center, and to do whatever we need to do to get back on center. For me, for instance, taking walks at the Marina is one thing that really centers me. So if I do that 2 or 3 times a week I'm pretty centered most the time. Whereas if it's raining and I only do it one time a week, I start getting a little cranky and a little touchy.

The rule that when both people in a couple are off center the fights escalate, is a very good thing to remember. Because then if either of you realize, "If we're in an escalating fight we must both be off center," it puts it in a whole different context.

2. Learning the Book

There's a book of each of us to learn about. Everyone's book has two sections: 1. What messes the person up and 2. What makes the person clearer. You need to know what messes the other person up, and what you can invite the other person to do that makes them clearer. We need to know especially our own book: what messes me up, what makes me clearer. Of course it varies with time. Sometimes you can go to a party and have two drinks and it won't mess you up. Other times you might must be a little off to begin with and have just one drink and you're really messed up for a day or two.

3. The 10% Rule.

The 10% rule is very valuable to remember. Whenever we over-react to anything in the present, it's because the reaction is being fed by underground streams from our past. Similar events (or events that our psyche sees as similar) trigger similar feelings. E.g. someone may yell at you in a certain way -- and someone may have picked on you similarly when you were 5 years old -- and all of a sudden the old unresolved emotion goes surging through you and you're now treating the person in front of you as though they are the one who hurt you when you were five. We seldom really fight with the person in front of us. We're fighting with our past.

4. Speaking from Yourself.

It's very hard to fight if you begin sentences with "I." It's much easier to fight if you begin a sentence with "you." "You always do that!" as opposed to "I'm feeling really attacked right now" or "I'm feeling really vulnerable right now." Or "I'm feeling invalidated by what you said." Notice how far down into the sentence that "you" was. The trick is not to say "I think you're an asshole." That's a "you" statement. I'm sorry but you can't masquerade it.

Really claim your feelings -- and not just mechanically say "I" first -- say, "I'm going through this right now, in reaction to or in relationship to something you're doing. But I'm going through it. This is my button."

5. Feel free to admit you're wrong.

Most people think they have to defend themselves. Believe me when I say that I was way up there in the defensive sweepstakes. Then I realized, after years of self work, that the strongest position in the world is not defending yourself.

It's saying, "Yeah, I acted like a jerk" or "Yeah, I shouldn't have done that" or "Yeah, that was a crappy thing to say." So if you can agree with the other person's statement -- and I don't mean falsely or inauthentically -- then the fight is over.

Let's say the other person says to you "That was a really hurtful thing you said." Now if instead of counterattacking, you take a minute to pause and take a breath, and say, "Oh, I can see it had that effect on you. Gee, I didn't mean that" then the other person feels seen. The minute either of you lays down your sword, the fight is over. It takes two to tangle, as they say.

6. It's important to be emotionally bare.

The feeling, "It's safe to be emotionally bare with this person" is an important one. It's amazing that people feel safer to be physically bare than to be emotionally bare, but that's really true. And to realize that if you speak from fear and if you speak from hurt, if you speak from sadness or grief, it will be so much more acceptable to (and felt by) the other person than your speaking from anger.

The reason why is that many of our wounds, our traumas from childhood (with significant exceptions, like a mother who was full of grief and committed suicide) have to do with anger as the emotion expressed by a parent. So the minute someone becomes angry at you, your psyche mocks them up as your parent. Whereas if someone's sad and says "That really hurt" or "That really scared me", that's a whole different ball game. It doesn't tend to overlay the parental messages as much. In some cases it might, but not as much. It doesn't usually make people feel as threatened.

I remember one time when I was angry at my ex-wife, she looked at my eyes--because we'd gotten pretty far along in our work--and she said, "You're really hurting right now, aren't you?" and the anger was gone. Because she saw my pain -- and that was really all my soul wanted -- my anger vanished in thin air. And that wasn't her intent; she just saw who I was. And that's what everyone wants. When we feel that the other person doesn't see us, doesn't care, and doesn't like us, that is when we go ballistic, that we get freaked out.

7. After the Honeymoon by Daniel B. Wile.

There's a wonderful book called After the Honeymoon by Daniel B. Wile. Even though the format is a little strange, the principles are phenomenal. He dispels a lot of clichés about relationships and shares incredible insights.

One of the clichés he dispels is, "Don't expect to be healed by your partner." He says that's hogwash. Of course you should be healed by your partner. Who else is going to help you heal? I really firmly believe he's right. If one of you is hurt by something in life, if you can ask the other person to hold you while you go through your pain, what an incredible richness for both of you.

8. Tell your stories.

Tell each other your stories. Not things that you really don't want to share (never force anything.). But let's say that one of your parents was at times cold. To help your partner understand that, really flesh it out, help them understand the circumstances where Mom or Dad would get cold, and the impact it had on you. I don't mean just the momentary impact, but how it shaped the person you are today, the pervasive impact it had on you. Add what things your partner does that remind you of this.

9. Our differing maps of reality.

We each have maps of reality that can be very different from our partner's map. And one of the biggest mistakes every human being makes is to think that "my map is your map". It ain't true! When we do that, we make terrible errors in judgment about the other person. So we need to learn each other's maps.

I ask a lot of questions when I'm working one-to-one with people because I don't presume that I know what someone means by a statement. I want them to flesh it out; I want them to explore it. I don't want to assume that my map's definition of abuse, for instance, is the same as the other person's. "I had an abusive father." That could mean a whole lot of things. "I had a father who was cold." Does that mean he was physically cold? Does that mean he was cold in your presence? Does that mean he was cold to Mom? What flavor of cold? Was is it a critical cold? A depressed cold? There's so much to explore. If you are to successfully sail your ship off into the sunset . . . .

10. Marriage is incredibly healthful.

A research study found that the average person who lives as part of a couple into their old age lives 10 years longer than a single person. (Note: the study did not say the person was in a happy marriage, just a marriage). There's no better indicator of how healthy it is to be in relationship. That's the average; if it's a good relationship who knows how many more years of life it adds.

11. Understanding our differences.

If you are to sail into the sunset together, then the more you understand each other's territories, the easier it becomes. Early in my marriage, I'd get very threatened when my partner would get angry, for example start cursing at a driver who cut her off. And the reason I'd feel so threatened was that I was projecting that she would be angry for a long time, because when I get angry it takes me a while to cool down.

It turned out that for her it was like a storm that blew through and out, and she was fine afterwards. But it took me a while to really register the difference between her psyche and mine. I didn't have to be afraid of her anger because the shoe wouldn't drop an hour later. She wouldn't have a slow fuse burning and blow up at me later. In fact, she just discharged and she was fine. It took me a while to get that. We were wired differently.

12. John Gottman and "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".

John Gottman is the foremost researcher on relationships in the world. He has had a "Love Lab" at the University of Washington where he and his students observed individual couples interacting with each other (through a one-way mirror) for 8 -- 12 hours at a time, and tabulated their behaviors.

He became able to tell, after only one observational session, whether the couple would be together in three years (with 94% accuracy). Out of this research, he came up with the principle of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are the four patterns that destroy a relationship. They're paired, two and two. Two bad and two fatal to the relationship.

The first two are criticalness and defensiveness. One person is critical and the other is defensive. It usually takes this form: "You should have polished your shoes." "Why are you picking on me?"

The deadlier ones are contempt and withdrawal. "You did such a crappy job cleaning the carpet today", then the partner shuts down and withdraws. Gottman changed the name of the last pattern from withdrawal to stonewalling later on in his research. He noted that withdrawal doesn't mean just a numb state or a passive state. The person may be totally overwhelmed inside, and just can't handle the interaction. He introduced the idea of flooding, instead.

13. Flooding. A state of intense physiological arousal.

In flooding, he's talking about a physiological phenomenon. If a couple fight, the woman's heart beat will return to normal much faster than the man's. (The only exception to that was exceptionally abused women, who had the same recovery time as a man.) When a fight is over, the woman will return to normal relatively quickly. And the man's physiology may be only half way there. The pulse rate may still be raised a bit and adrenaline may still be circulating. And the woman says, "okay honey, let's do something now." And the man's not ready, whether it's make love, or take a walk or do a post-mortem on the fight. It's important to understand that this is actually wired into the physiology. It's a genetic reality. This is not socialized. Understanding that can be useful information.

He says that by the time that one person in a couple gets into withdrawal -- where one person is contemptuous and the other person has stopped trying to communicate, that's when he could predict with accuracy that the couple wouldn't be together in three years. Because if he saw a really rooted pattern of contempt and withdrawal, the relationship was going to die.

14. Repair. Healing from fights.

It doesn't mean that there was nothing that could be done to enable a contempt/flooding based relationship to survive. Gottman next studied healthy couples.

He found that it's not how much you fight that kills a relationship. Couples can be stable and the relationship healthy if one person is top dog and the other is under dog, if they are okay with it, or if they're really histrionic -- where they're yelling at each other a lot -- (without contempt and withdrawal) or where they're more classically "lovey-dovey".

All of these can be stable, but the real key to health in their relationships was when they did hit an impasse, how they went about repairing.

15. Ways of Repairing.

When you're a young couple, people commonly repair by making love, and that's a valid repair if both people are ready for it, and it's a way of reaffirming their energy. But that can't be the only way. Relationships need lots of ways.

For instance, some people can inject humor into their repair attempt (not ridicule, of course). "Boy, honey, I was so way off, I was farther out than Saturn." "Honey, sometimes I think I'm the biggest bozo on the bus." Not to do it in a really self-deprecating way, but just sort of an acknowledgment in a humorous way. It adds light, and the other person is more likely to open their heart. If you had a fight that ended in a way that was humorous but acknowledging, wouldn't that warm you?

So, look at ways of repairing, look at what works. Find what repair methods work for your partner. Explore and learn. And don't rely on only one method, because your partner might not be up for that one.

16. Knowing and believing your partner understands you.

The question to ask yourself is: How would you know that they understand you?

You feel like they don't understand you when they argue the same point over and over again, but you need to understand that they keep repeating themselves because they also feel misunderstood. People keep on arguing until they get what they are looking for, a kind of acknowledgment of what they are trying to get across to you.

The fact that you're both looking for something different perpetuates the fight. You are both right. The one thing that will disarm a fight is for you to communicate to your partner that you understand them. Saying "I understand" is not enough. If it were enough, we wouldn't be talking about it.

It is more effective to same something like, "I think I understand. You're saying to me that [and then paraphrase what they said to the best of your understanding]", adding. "Do I have it correctly?"

By actually sharing the content of what you think you understand, your partner can really relax and go, "My partner gets it." Because saying just "I understand" is not sufficient. I'm not saying it shouldn't be sufficient, it just isn't.

It's a very good principle in general: to help someone get that you understand them. Let me demonstrate (as if speaking to one person in a couple). "I think I understand what you're saying. I think there were some things in the conversation that were important for you to know that your partner heard. And that you weren't getting the feedback from them that they heard and acknowledged the value of those particular points." What I did was I observed what was happening and I fed it back to them. That establishes rapport. It also helps me because if I'm wrong in my paraphrase, I express to them what I'm perceiving and they can correct me. It works, it's very functional. I'm saying people feel misunderstood or misheard or ignored.

17. Effect vs. Intention

(Note: this is a very important section. Please digest it thoroughly.)
People often say or do something and find that the effect on the partner is different than they intended.

Each person needs to notice the effect they're having on the other person. We have to take responsibility for our effects, not just our intentions. We know our own intentions and when the other person reacts we think, "Why are you reacting that way?" Instead of saying, "Wow, I have that effect on the other person, even though that wasn't my intention."

One of my friends had a very arrogant voice tone. I'll never forget the day he somehow managed to "part the curtains" and say, "I appreciate you accepting me as a friend. I can't help coming across as arrogant." And then the curtains closed again. It was amazing he had the wherewithal to somehow do that.

We often spend so much time feeling insulted that someone misread our intentions that we ignore that we are responsible for the effect of our actions, regardless of our intent. Instead of saying, "That wasn't my intention", grow to the place of being able to say, "I'm sorry what I said -- or did -- had that effect upon you. Thank you for making me aware of it."

We're in relationship to shape each other. We're in relationship to polish each other's behavior and prune each other's behavior. Like shaping a beautiful tree, keeping the branches from going the wrong way.

So when you discover that an action or talk ends up having a harmful effect, -- for instance, to break things down logically in a time of emotional pain when your partner needs sympathy instead --, you realize, "I don't want to hurt my partner and, therefore, I need to find other ways, other avenues of talking about things during the fight (other than a logical dissection) because that approach is not a strategy that works with the partner that I love."

18. People generally misread others intentions.

How do you not get in the intention-effect snarl? One way is for each of us to own that we human beings are often terrible at knowing each other's intentions, especially if we're touchy or off center. We often attribute the wrong motives to people, and react inappropriately.

The only antidote is to reality test. There are two ways: examining your projections by yourself, and asking the other person about their intentions.

The first way might say, "Oh, I have a habit of attributing this motive to that person and they're not usually trying to be that way. They're not thinking that way. This is my projection." In other words, one way is to own our own projections.

As you learn about the habitual projections you have on your partner, you can say "Wait a minute. That's my projection. I don't want to go there, I don't want to attribute that to them because I have found out already that's not true. I often make that mistake." We each start looking at what our projections are, and learning not to trust them.

When you find yourself interpreting your partner's intention, you can also say, "Wait a minute, I'm messing with my own mind here. I'm telling myself a big story about their intentions, and I'm causing myself all this pain by doing that. I don't want to do that to myself." You can really wean yourself from that pattern. I know from my own experience.

The other way to reality test is to ask the person. Since we're "all bozos on this bus" and none of us are good at knowing the other person's motive, it works fantastically well to say, "You know, my friend, when you said such and such, what were you thinking? What was going on inside you?" And they'll explain and you'll go, "Oh my gosh, that doesn't match at all with what my projection was." And believe them because you know that they are much more in touch with their intentions than you are. And boy does that straighten things out.

If the minute you made that statement you said to him, "When you said that does it mean that you feel burdened by my parents?" And you trusted he would tell you the truth and he said, "No, that doesn't mean that at all, it means such and such" there would be no problem. The beauty of curiosity, the beauty of saying to yourself, "I don't know everything, and if I'm thinking someone's thinking a certain way and it's not a thinking I want, let me ask them. I've got nothing to lose. The worst thing that can happen is they confirm my fears and at least nine times out of ten they won't. So let me ask the other person, what's going on inside them." If they confirm your fears, that's where you started. You can't get any worse than where you started.

And if asked, don't tell the other person what it doesn't have to do with; tell them what it does have to do with.

19. Talk about how you feel.

It is more effective to talk about your feelings: "The party's over. The house is a mess. I'm feeling abandoned. I want the house to be clean. I don't want to do it all by myself." If you communicate primary emotions, boy will you be effective. If you say "Please help me clean this up." that's so direct, isn't it? We as partners need to be clued in, we need cue cards.

20. What do we do when we're having two different arguments? (Mine and yours)

The solution to that is to say, "Okay, who goes first? Which of the two arguments will we resolve first?" Instead of both of you trying to resolve yours at the same time, which never works, say, "Ok, flip a coin. Heads we deal with mine; tails we deal with yours. If you're at cross-purposes, you'll untangle it by saying, "Wait a minute. There's two separate issues here. Let's deal with one and then we'll deal with the other."

If either of you can say to yourself, "I want to understand their point more than I want to deliver mine," again there can't be a fight. Reach out.

There almost always are two separate arguments. It's really good to say, "Wait a minute. This will go so much easier if we acknowledge each other, if we are willing to explore what the other person is really trying to get across and get understood, if we realize we're not each other's enemies and if we hold the context that this will resolve, we will love each other, this will pass, we'll even laugh about it and learn from it, and it's not even so bad to fight and to straighten things out. It gives you a lot of learning material. Important note: I'm not talking about slugging people or cheating on people or going below the belt or over the line. A healthy fight can clear the air and help both of you understand.

21. Express your primary emotions.

I use the word "primary emotions": if you can express yourself in three word sentences, the fight will change tremendously. And the first two words in the sentence are, "I feel" and the third word has to be emotion. "I feel sad." "I feel angry." "I feel threatened." "I feel scared." "I feel distant." "I feel abandoned." If you keep it to real emotional words, that will change the whole interaction. If first you understand each other's emotions, then dealing with the content will be so much easier. When you fight, you're often trying to resolve too much at once.

22. Communicate or emote.

One of my favorite quotes is, "Do you want to communicate, or do you want to express emotions?" Because often you can't do both. If you want to communicate, then go into your separate quarters, calm down, and then you come back and communicate.

If you want to express emotion, then stop using words and instead, like Tim Allen used to do in his comedy routine, go "Grrrrhhh." [make sounds] Believe me that's a very good strategy. If you start fighting and if either of you just goes "Grrrrrrrrrrr" it's going to change. All of a sudden you've gotten into a primal sound [the sound of gorilla]. It will change, you'll laugh and the emotions will flow and it will be so much better. When you try to communicate and emote at the same time, it gets all snarled. You've got two different processes going on simultaneously, and it's hard to untangle them.

23. All it takes is one person to change the energy.

These are good strategies. All it takes is one person who has the presence of mind to say or do any of the things we're discussing and the fight takes a different direction. It's like with my ex-wife looking at me and saying, "You're hurting." All of a sudden I was seen; game over; that's all I needed. The conflict vanished into thin air.

24. Realize when you're just off. And do what you need to do to restore.

Another time, we got into this little snarl, and I realized that for me it was just that I was off. She wanted to get into it and I knew I was off and that it would escalate, and that it was meaningless (just a function of my not feeling good at that moment).

I just needed to chill.

So I said to her, "Look, if we keep talking, it's not going to go to a good place. Let me cool off and regroup, and I'll come back in a few minutes, and we'll see what happens." And she said, "You just don't want to deal with it." She wasn't happy about my leaving, but she let me go. So I went upstairs and rested, and let emotions move through me and returned to center, and came downstairs and said to her, "Do we really have an issue?"

And she looked and said, "You know, we don't." And there wasn't any fight. So that's another wonderful thing. If we realize that nine times out of ten if we're reacting to the other person it's because we're off center, because we're not meeting some needs: we're either too hot, too cold, too hungry, too tired, need exercise, something. If we realize we're embodied, physiological beings, and if our bodies are off, if we ate too much sugar, whatever it is, and we do (whatever we need to do) to balance ourselves and then return to the person and the issue, it's so much easier.

25. When the fighting is escalating.

It's like my idea that if ten minutes into a fight you're fighting harder, it's time to stop. It's time to stop, disengage for a few minutes, watch TV, read a book, take a walk, and then come back.

26.When one partner starts a fight with emotion and the other starts with logic.

If the logical one validates the other's emotions, and the emotional one validates the other's words, then it will be a whole different ball game. In effect, validate where the other person's coming from. If person A is emotional, you can say, "Wow, you're really upset about this, aren't you?" They can respond,"Wow, yeah, I am." And all of a sudden there will be more rapport. Or if person B is more logical, you can say "I understand that my understanding what you're trying to get across to me is really important to you" and the logical one will feel heard. We're talking about disarming behavior.

Deborah Tannen wrote a book called You Just Don't Understand Me. Essentially she says there are male and female modes of interacting. In our society they're fairly gender based; it may be different in other places and times. The male mode is "fix it", where the male is trying to fix the situation. He says, "What's the solution here? How can we fix it?" The female mode is sympathy. "I really feel what you're feeling. I've been through stuff like that; it's really hard."

For a person to be most effective with their spouse, they need to be able to go back and forth between those two modes, the sympathy mode and the fix-it mode. Once, with a client, she wanted sympathy mode first, not fix-it. When I started with fix it mode, she felt completely misunderstood, completely unacknowledged. If I started with "Wow, it's been tough, hasn't it." We would immediately get into rapport. So you can actually ask for what you need. E.g., "Can we get into fix it mode here because I want to actually strategically want to solve this problem." Or "I need you to just support and empathize with what I'm going through. I don't want solutions; I just want empathy and understanding." I'm not saying it's always gender based, of course, as it can switch.

27. Turn taking.

Another point is turn-taking. One of the reasons you fight is because you're not taking turns correctly. You're interrupting each other; you're monologuing; you're not listening, or at least you don't let the other person know you're listening. In fact, I was on a meditation retreat with a friend of mine, and we thought of coming up with a device that would "beep, beep, beep" louder and louder if the couple were not taking proper turns with each other, to alert them, "Wait a minute, you just derailed. Things are going to get worse here." A little acoustic device. Therefore, another way for either of you to stop a fight is to say, "I'm not going to say anything right now. I'm just going to listen to the other person." If person A said to B, "B, you just talk for five minutes. I'm just going to listen." There would be no fight. It would completely derail the incorrect turn-taking that results in and perpetuates and escalates a fight.

28. Print this out, make notes, and keep them handy.

If you're in the middle of a fight say, "Let's pick up the article, or our notes on it." One of them says growl, so you growl. Another says be quiet and let the other person talk. These are nice resources. I don't expect you to hold them in your mind when you're fighting, but if you have them on nice little cheat sheets, how great that will be.

Because all we really need is practice. When my ex-wife and I first fought it didn't work real well, but by the end of our marriage our fights lasted almost no time at all because we both got to a place where we said, "I don't want to cause you any pain." It was so important for us; we got to a place of such clarity that we didn't want to cause our partner pain, that we couldn't almost fight anymore. We'd stop; we'd say, "Wait a minute. Let's not fight about this. Let's acknowledge where we are." We got to the point where we just resolved fighting. It was really great.

29. Remaining flexible.

One trap is for either member of a couple to say, "Well, I'm just this way." To some extent that's true, but we can each learn to be the other person's way more, and that's really helpful. We can adopt the idea that the other person is meant to be our teacher, and we can learn a different style from the other person that will augment our style, and make us more whole and more real. Instead of being threatened by the difference, we go "Wow, this difference is going to be important and growthful for me."

30. Remembering our tone. Opening our hearts.

Everything I've said here will not end fights, but there may be times when they will. I remember one time I was fighting with a girlfriend during my college years, and George Harrison's record was on, All Things Must Pass and "Isn't it a pity" came on, about how we break each other's hearts and cause each other pain. I heard those words, and became aware of the effect I was having upon her, and I stopped fighting and said, "I'm sorry I'm yelling at you." She said, "You got that from a song?" The song just stopped me cold because I didn't want to hurt her.

We have to remember that it doesn't matter if our intention is good if our effect is hurtful. Effect is more important than intention.

The repair is feeding the relationship, making sure all the loose ends are healed, making sure the other person knows you care.

31. Relationships are not always for forever, and that's o.k.

When I was a teenager, I happened to look at a bookshelf in the hall and saw a collection of essays called, "Sex in Civilization". In reading them, I was most struck by an essay that compared relationships to flowers. They pointed out that some flowers (and relationships) are perennials, and bloom year after year. But other flowers (and relationships) are annuals or biennials, and are no less beautiful or valuable. In other words, not to glorify the lifelong marriage at the expense of shorter relationships.

One of the primary reasons that my marriage ended was because my ex-wife needed to travel. (Which she did, around the world, for years.) She just needed to go. I bought her a ticket for around the world. We parted well. She said, "You're so nice to me I don't even want to leave. You've met all my relationship needs, but I've got to go. It's just in my blood." It was fine, it was time for the relationship to go its own ways. She even said to me a week or two ago, "You know, Hank, you're one of the most important people in my life." How many couples can have that kind of interaction after a divorce, so I feel really good about how we've done this. A relationship isn't always meant to last forever; my ideal is that it would. Sometimes you match for awhile and then you go your own way. And we had some great years together.

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