Conversations are the most direct, effective and evolved form of communication among humans, yet, just talking to each other is not enough for heart- to heart parleys. Heart- to-heart conversations require skill and when dialogues are laden with what renowned couples’ expert, Dr. Gottman, refers to as the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and/or Stonewalling) relationships either don’t survive or if they do, they exist in misery.
If you are saying to yourself right now, “…it’s my partner’s fault our conversations either don’t happen or they have bad endings” you may be absolutely right!, hence, to have a shot at turning that stance around, infusing a new set of conversational skills is imperative. You can set this in motion even (especially) if your partner is stuck in hurtful or unproductive communication styles.
- If you find yourself “stuck” when conversing with your partner, one or both are being held hostage by ineffective transmission-reception moves. By the time a couple is sitting across from me, they have exhausted their conversational resources and have adjusted their survival knob to “high”. Another way of saying this is: one shoots, one ducks, one ducks, one shoots, while hoping for resolution and relief. Sometimes both shoot, in which case, they live in an exhausting state of volatile, chaos, sporadic moments of passion and instability. Then, there are couples whom both duck (rarely in therapy) most commonly living relational-static parallel lives at best.
- No relational pattern can change effectively until the conversation style shifts. I get to meet folks from diverse ages and backgrounds whom somehow, through legacies dragged in by prior generations, misinformation and plain stubbornness, walk into my office carrying the mistaken belief that someone’s way of communicating is set in stone and habits need lobotomies to have a shot at change. Not so. Recognize any of these phrases? (my personal favorite):”This is who I am”, “I am too old to change”, “It’s not me”, “Responding differently feels fake”, “No matter what I say, I can’t win”, It’s just too hard” , “I talk when and if I feel like it”, “I have the right to say (and do) whatever I want” “If my partner changes, then I will”, “What’s the big deal?, I am just venting”, etc. Sounds familiar? These languid beliefs maintain resentments, distance and grandiosity, nowhere near, wholehearted, productive and fun conversations.
- Transforming our conversational style is crucial if we want to harmoniously co-share space with others on this earth and a must if we want true intimacy in our relationships. I had a couple in my office once, where the wife, in a 20 second righteous fit, verbally tore her husband apart. When she was done, I asked her if she thought she had made her point across and she replied: “I don’t care if I did or didn’t, I wanted to say it!” That is not a conversation, it’s a performance. Sadly, those rage-away moments annihilate any potential audience. Feelings are to be felt and expressed NOT wildly acted out.
While it is vital to learn how we adopted our current communication style, we can immediately apply concrete and effective skills to improve it.
The disclaimer here is that no one deserves to be mistreated and conversations must end if any sign of abuse is present: (cursing/hitting/ignoring/shaming/sarcasm/screaming/contempt).
Short of that disclaimer, if conversations with your partner often go awry and you or both walk away disgruntled from the exchange, challenge the status quo by bringing forth these 4 approaches:
In a conversation, Curiosity means you genuinely seek to understand what your partner wants to communicate. Think of the way children learn about the world around them and apply that stance; a big question mark above you and a genuine hankering to know more. (Don’t assume “you’ve heard it before”)
What it sounds like:
- I see it differently but I am interested in how you see it
- What makes you say that?
- What makes you be silent?
- Why is it important for you tell me this now?
- What do you hope I do about what you are telling me?
- Is there something else about this that you’d want me to hear?
- Did I hear you fully?
- Can you give me some specific details?
- What would be the ideal answer for you?
- What do you need from me?
Curiosity opens up the lines of communication; it transmits a message that implies: “I want to hear you, I care about what you are saying even if I don’t agree with it, and I am interested in you. In order for the receiver to use curiosity successfully, a big dose of humbleness is also needed:
In a conversation, Humbleness is the ability to put your ego aside and tell your righteousness to take a hike. The minute your ego gets in the way, you humility goes out the window and you are now in win-lose/ kill-live mode. Humbleness is about letting go of your defenses.
What it sounds like:
- I don’t know that side of me, I must be coming across differently than what I intend.
- How does what I do or say affect you or others you care about?
- I can own some or all of what you are saying
- Can you give me some specific details?
- Yes, I did act irresponsibly/ immaturely/thoughtlessly/etc.
- I see how I acted in that particular situation and am working on changing in this or that particular way. Do you have any suggestions?
- I am so sorry I‘ve hurt you/ignored you/disrespected you, etc.
- What can I do now?/How do I make it better?
- I get you see it this or that way and I ‘d like to also tell you the way I see it.
Humbleness softens the space between you both and it regulates the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, 2 hormones that promote the flight or fight response so you can listen and engage rather than argue and disconnect. Humbleness is leaving yourself for a moment with genuine concern and focus on the other person.
In a conversation, Positioning means you set-up for the occasion. Think of planning a dinner party for 8 (you’d plan for enough chairs, food, drinks, etc., for all 8, not, say, 3 only). Setting up for a heart-to-heart conversation requires you don’t short-change your partner. It calls for a full wholehearted approach, in a non confrontational way, with a clear introduction of what you want to share, an inviting tone and a true desire to strategize together, find common ground, brainstorm new ideas or address a problem.
What it sounds like:
- Is this a good time to talk?
- This is what’s on my mind… (straight forward, short, clear)
- When (this or that happened or you did this or that) I made myself feel ….
- What I am imagining is that…
- What I need from you is…
Positioning is respect. It forces you to stay leveled and not get righteously grandiose (you idiot, me victim). You can get angry, frustrated, disappointed, etc., while you maintain your boundary and keep your cool at the same time. When you position yourself in this way, you stop yourself from being righteous and aggressive and lead yourself into vulnerability and assertiveness. Positioning works best when paired with its twin sibling:
In a conversation Spacing speaks to creating room for you and your partner, to digest the information being discussed . You cannot possibly expect your partner to hear you, let alone, consider your point, if you are overpowering them with an outpour of endless words, a harsh tone or the body language of a pouncing beast.
What is looks like:
- Your tone is kind (no matter how angry you may be). Kind means non-aggressive (don’t point or stare down or roll your eyes or sigh or mock or mimic your partner’s voice to make a point)
- You speak to, not down to: remember you are no more and no less than the other person.
- You allow your partner to ask you questions and to ask for clarification.
- You create room for immediate repair: “wait, that came out wrong, let me say it again”
- You allow for repair if your partner is the one that misspoke and caught him/herself.
- Contain your craving to interrupt
At the end of the day, the result of the exchange with your partner (boss, friend, kids, family, etc.,) is that determines the quality of your day to day, i.e., your life, so think about what kind of energy you ‘d rather live in and choose your conversational approach accordingly (even f it feels odd at first).
To many true heart to hearts!