One helpful tool in therapy is a small but mighty word: AND. "And" creates space and allows for complexity of experience and opens up greater options. Instead of one OR the other, it’s this AND that. Instead of me OR you, it’s me AND you AND us.
In most relationships, emotions can get real hot real quick. We say something hurtful. Our partner hurls a hurtful attack back. And on it goes. Not only feelings get hurt, but relationships are hurt and foundational trust is ruptured.
A quick, basic strategy to stop hemorrhaging, buy time, and not make things worse, is to establish a safe word. This is a word you say to signifying that you are hitting pause, taking space, and interrupting the hurt spiral. The word can be anything. I had one couple who said "muskrat." It’s hilarious, and because it’s hilarious, it helped diffuse hot conflicts. Hard to yell and laugh at the same time.But lately, I have been a fan of using "ouch" as the diffusing word. It’s a little more accurate, a little more vulnerable and true (often anger is a secondary emotion to hurt), and it can soften the interaction.
From that point, take an hour and reassess. If you're still too heated to talk, say so. "Hey, im not ready. This is important, but I’m still to heated to communicate effectively. Lets check back in in an hour." That second part is important because often one person can feel anxious or abandoned by the space. Or couples can hit pause and not return to the conflict which only leads to festering, undealt-with, emotions. This strategy should be agreed upon ahead of time so that both parties can agree upon the words and the terms and what the intention is behind hitting pause. This may need some experimentation and tweaking as you go, but is worth a try to start to help you get unstuck from ineffective and hurtful communication patterns.
Need help getting started with this practice? Need help in other areas of your relationship? We can help. Call us today and start rebuilding your relationship.
People respond to praise. People thrive on appreciation and attention. We know this. We practice it freely with pets and kids. We lavish praise when we're smitten with a new love interest. And although we know that it works and makes others feel good, we often neglect this behavior when in a long term relationship
"If I praise them all the time, it won’t mean much"
"I shouldn't have to praise them, they should just do it because it needs to be done"
"I shouldn't have to praise them, they know I love them."
"I shouldn’t ask for praise, I should be an adult with no needs"
On a behavioral level, praise reinforces behaviors. Want your partner to take out the trash? Ask and then say "thank you". Bonus points for expanding on a "thank you" with feedback on what the behavior shows you about the person's character, how it helps you, or how it makes you happy (thank you. That was so thoughtful of you/ it saved me some time so I could get other things done/ it makes me feel special").
On an attachment level, praise demonstrates appreciation and respect and reassures the other person that they matter. Attachment takes work and maintenance and consistent praise and gratitude helps build that bond and create a sense of safety and connection. This is vital for the health of the relationship. And all it takes is a moment.
Do you use this word when describing your partner’s behaviors, intentions, etc..?? If you do, stop it. It’s most likely not even remotely true. “You NEVER consider my feelings.” Never is really a clue for you. It could be your partner is yearning for a closer connection but going about it in a backwards way. It might be them covertly saying “I want you to know how much I need and care for you and I am not feeling that you want this, too.” Instead of arguing that you absolutley do “X,Y and Z”, connect tiwth the emotion behind the frustration. Is it fear, sadness or something else? Get curious instead of defensive.
Always. Again, probably not true. Always and never are like evil twins. Get them out of your vocabulary. Instead of saying always, assert your frustration and be specific. “I am getting tired of feeling like I pick up your dirty clothes on a daily basis. That might not be totally accurate, but it sure feels that way.” Always and Never are received as a global attack on somebody’s character. Instead, focus on how the behaviors or events impact you on a personal level, keep it about yourself and not how horrible the other person is. If you want the other person to have sympathy for you, attacking them is never the way to go. Hey babe, I know you have long days too, and that you just want to relax when you get home, however just dumping your stuff on the floor feels like I am your housekeeper and I need to clean up. Tidiness calms me down, so if you could help me with staying calm, that would be great.”
I love you BUT…. Ick. We all know that line. When you throw a BUT into a sentance it negates the first half of what you said! It makes it completely irrelevant, You can have the exact same sentance if you replace BUT with AND. I love you AND when you come to bed at 3 am it messes up my sleep. I love you AND when you use that tone with me I feel like a child. I completely disagree with you AND you are entitled to your opinion.
Try to kick those words out of your vernacular. Those words suck AND when I use them my husband is quick to remind me about the 3 bad words. As always, we are shooting for a B+ / A- range for being in tune and staying connected. Nobody has an A+ unless they are brushing things under the rug, which leads to resentment and other nasty things. Learn to air your grievances in a way that will allow your partner to give you everything you want.
Time outs can be a great strategy to diffuse an escalating argument with your partner. But if you haven't tried this strategy, it can be ineffective or make things worse. In order to increase the odds that it works, try these tips.
1. Agree on the strategy ahead of time. Asking for space during a fight can trigger abandonment fears in your partner. They may continue to pursue out of fear and you may feel trapped or smothered and both of you feel more distressed. Talking about it ahead of time can help you lay ground rules and create a shared meaning and understanding that a break is meant to be a helpful tool not a destructive weapon.
2. Set a time to reconvene. Taking a break is meant to help you calm down so you can headdress the conflict with cooler heads. It's not a way to avoid a topic. Setting a time helps manage anxieties that both parties won't be heard or that a resolution won't be reached. People are more likely to disengage if they know they can reconnect later.
3. Don't use the break to rehearse your zingers or low blows or to remind yourself how right you are or how wrong they are. Instead, use time to calm down, and come back to goals and values. I suggest doing deep breathing. If you're not breathing calmly, you can't talk calmly.
Validation isn't just for external relationships. If you want to take it to the next level with some upper division therapy shit, try the validation strategies on yourself. I'll be doing bonus blogs with each validation strategy to give pointers for how to validate yourself so you can heal and strengthen your relationship with you.
Strategy Two: Reflect back!
In the same way we can reflect back to others (see reflect back blog), we can use this skill intrapersonally to build a relationship with ourselves.
Glad you asked! We reflect back by observing our experience and putting words on it. You can do this by journaling or by just labeling things in your head (yup...I'm advocating talking to yourself. You do it anyway, might as well do it intentionally and use your inner monologue to validate rather than tear you down!) Notice thoughts, emotions, behaviors, body sensations, action urges, ect. This observing and describing helps us be mindful, slow down, notice patterns, and gain insight.
Example: "So when he was late to dinner I took it personally and got mad." By making that statement you give yourself the opportunity to check the facts and question if it was actually personal, it can help you feel empathy in the situation, and it can help identify your triggers.
This is best done with an nonjudgmental stance and a sense of curiosity. It'd be rad to take that last example and add the phrase "isn’t that interesting" to the end. So it would be "when he was late to dinner, I took it personally and got mad. Isn’t that interesting." Your relationship with yourself will grow leaps and bounds by seeing yourself with spaciousness and grace and wonder.
In therapy, we look at ways to build relationships through effective communication. There are some basic ways to help people feel connected and, in psycho-babble terms, they're called "validation strategies". If any of your relationships feel strained or if you just want to enhance an already kick ass relationship, do more validating!!! In this little series I’m doing, I will go through the different strategies of validation.
Strategy Two: Reflect back
So, since you are a good student and have been practicing the first validation strategy in the validation strategy series, it’s time to add on. This next validation strategy is a way for you to stay engaged and check for understanding.
"Reflecting back" is simply echoing back what the person is saying, or stating what you observed, making sure that you are actively listening, comprehending, and tracking what’s being said. When you reflect back, you give validation to the other person, and proov that what they said is being heard and understood. In the end, isn’t that what we all want!?!
Here’s a few admittedly lame examples: "When I was late to dinner you thought I did it on purpose and were mad. Did I get that right?" "So I’m hearing that you would really want me to take out the trash every other day." "Sounds like you are in a lot of pain still from that surgery."
Key point: No judgement, be open minded, truly seek to understand. Be aware of sarcasm, tone and body language (an eye roll or a sigh or mocking tone while reflecting back is a recipe for disaster!). The goal is to connect and promote more openness with the other person and a judgemental vibe will shut that down.
Alright you crazy kid, go out there and give it a try! You may not do it perfectly, but that's ok. Keep trying and watch your communication and connection improve!
I listen to podcasts. A lot. Excessively.
I’ve listened to ones by comedians and ones about serial murderers. Ive listen to shows about athletes and shows about gamers. Ive listened to ones about rappers and one's about farmers. You get it.
So what makes those random podcasts interesting to me? It’s not that I relate to the day to day comings and goings of a rap star or farm hand. It’s not that I've actually played a first person shooter video game or done a triathlon. It’s that these podcasts tell good stories.
I say this because many people get trapped in this notion that "our relationship suffers because we have nothing in common." Some are trapped because they are not listening to the other person to see the human experiences of success, pain, and emotion in a story (see my last blog on listening). Others are trapped because they don't tell good stories.
From my years working with individuals and couples and from my voracious consumption of comedy, podcasts, movies, books, etc, I offer a few tips to connect better by telling better stories:
- Show up. If you want to tell a good story, show up. Don't be talking while watching t.v. or checking Facebook or looking for who else is at the party that you can talk to. If you want others to be present and engaged listeners, be a present and engaged talker.
- Know your audience and try to connect with them. Try and speak their language and use examples they might relate to as a way to illustrate your point. People generally like to feel like you're talking spontaneously to them and not doing the same canned monologue that you've been telling at every water cooler for the past year. They also probably don't like feeling lost or left behind when you only speak in jargon without humbly offering to educate them. When people feel seen as a unique listener and that you are invested in helping them follow your story, they are often more open to listening.
- Check for understanding. Its cool to geek out on details and minutia. But if you're going to take a deep dive into a topic, make sure your conversation partner is keeping up. Ask "does that make sense?", "Did I lose you?", "Do you know what I mean?", "You picking up what I'm throwing down?"...well maybe not the last one. And don't shame or belittle your listener if they don't get it. They could have bull-shitted you but they cared enough to be honest and learn, so honor that.
- Include a liberal amount of commentary and behind the scenes footage. People may not connect to how you're using a new code to work on the financial concerns of middle age men in Nebraska, but they may be interested in how you felt as you struggled to figure it out or the relief of completing it on time. Insights into the human experience behind the story, help connect. Authenticity is attractive in a speaker, so practice letting your guard down and speak from your heart.
You're outdoorsy and he's a gamer. Your mom has a new passion for cross-stitching and tennis and that’s all she talks about. Your office mate just hiked another 14er....again.
I've been hearing a lot from clients who are struggling with relating in their relationships. This is part of one of a two part series to help you (re)connect in relationships.
Part of the disconnect can be that you aren't listening, aren't listening well, or aren't listening to the connective material in the other person's story. Here are some tips to start listening better.
- Show up. Like really show up. Be present. Eliminate, or at least minimize, distractions, and focus on listening.
- Stay engaged (non verbals). Listening is not a passive, spectator sport. I'm sure you have had someone passively hear you while they are checking Facebook, people watching, randomly and dispassionately saying "uh-huh", or totally spacing out. And I'm sure you've had someone actually be there, hold space for your words and feelings, and actively engage in the conversation by listening. Do that.
- Listen for understanding. Don't listen just for your opportunity to make a point. Not just to get in a jab or a punch line. Not to one up you or turn the conversation back to yourself. Listen for emotions. Listen for thoughts or reactions that give you a glimpse into the other’s life. Listen so the other person leaves feeling seen and known. Listen to others how you like others to listen to you.
- It makes conversations more connective.
- It can reduce conflict, sometimes people escalate in order to be heard
- When people feel heard, they are likely to listen
- It's kind and validating for the other person
- Why not!?!