I was in a restaurant
not long ago. My husband and I were having a much needed evening
without cooking, cleaning up, TV, snow shoveling, phone calls,
or late night to-dos which seem to be ever present when two people
run their own business. I looked around; it was the weekend and
there were several small groups of people laughing and chatting,
somebody celebrating a birthday, another group of colleagues in
animated but lighthearted discussion. I was delighted to be in
an atmosphere with others who were lightening up at the end of
the workweek. I was looking forward to a long, leisurely evening
over a glass of wine, a great meal, and some good conversation
with my best friend and life companion.
We were seated in a cozy corner near several other couples. I
was immediately struck by the silence at the table to my right.
A good looking couple in their mid fifties were eating in silence.
Not contemplative, gentle silence that accompanies the enjoyment
a delicious meal, but stony, angry silence. It was as if I was
sitting next to a stone wall. They didn't look at each other even
though their faces were less than three feet apart; they were each
turned slightly away from one another. The man was slumped in his
chair; the woman had her elbows on the table. You know the scene.
I was feeling open and relaxed. I didn't have
anything particularly heavy on my mind, and I wasn't going to
let myself be bothered by what I perceived as the silent war
going on next door. I felt like my boundaries were intact and
I could be myself and let these folks do and be whatever they
were even though the "vibe" wasn't
that pleasant, and we were practically sitting in their laps. We
ordered wine and settled back to enjoy our evening.
RUTH AND LEN
About ten minutes into our conversation, the
woman at the next table begins to speak. "I am so sick of the way you are" she
exclaims. The man slumps even further in his chair.
"You go away on your trips, you don't call,
you don't write, you don't even get in touch with the kids. You
come back; you expect we should pick up just where we left off.
I haven't heard from you for two weeks. You want me to come up
to the Berkshires with you, have a happy ski weekend, and pretend
like nothing happened." She
stops for a breath of air. Her husband (I assume) looks away and
She is a bit loud, and by this time, I can't help but feel somewhat
annoyed about my fantasy evening being interrupted, but also somewhat
curious as to what is going to happen. I wonder if this same conversation
hasn't happened between them hundreds of times already. I feel
sad for them. I imagine how lonely and painful it must be to be
involved in a relationship where problems are brought up in such
a blaming, shaming manner.
She continues. He hasn't even looked up. "Why
does this always happen? Why do you act like it's not important?
Why can't you be more decent to me?" Her voice has taken on
a desperate tone.
"For goodness sakes, lower you voice," he says, "the
whole restaurant is listening."
"See, there you go, you don't even care what I'm talking
about. All you care about is what other people think about how
we look!" She is furious. He crosses his arms over his chest
and turns his body away from the table. My husband and I look at
each other, and try to go on with our conversation. I am acutely
aware of the stress, disconnection, and anger at the table next
"I think we should leave," says he. "Let's
at least continue this in the car."
"Oh yeah sure, in the car. When have we ever
resolved this conversation? Forget it. Forget I ever brought anything
up. You don't want to hear what I have to say anyway." She
stands up and puts on her coat. He finishes paying the bill. And
they are gone. Silent, stony, angry, and hurting.
Of course, I don't really know exactly what
they were feeling because neither of them made any statements
about their feelings. I only imagined what they might be feeling.
And I only imagined that this was a "typical" interchange.
However, I've worked with enough distressed couples to recognize
this as a familiar scenario; many of them tell me this sort of
interaction occurs over and over again in the course of many
years of partnership.
IT HURTS WHEN WE FEEL DISCONNECTED AND ANGRY
Resolving conflict and working through difficult feelings is one
of the most important skills we relational (human) beings can learn.
Because we are hard wired for intimacy and connection, the breakdown
of our communication with one another often feels devastating.
When we don't have the skills to manage our feelings or communicate
our needs, we usually respond with anger, resentment, and criticism.
This is very unfortunate because anger and criticism are never
effective tools for inspiring change in anyone, nor do they usually
result in long- term connection. Research shows that when partners
engage in continuous criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling,
the result is an overload of emotional negativity to which the
nervous system responds by shutting down the good feelings of connection,
love, and pleasure. This syndrome is a sure predictor of the eventual
end of the relationship.
REPAIRING CONFLICT IS AN ART TO LEARN
However, the good news is that we have the capacity
to manage our feelings and work through conflict. It is a learned
skill, just like walking and talking. Unfortunately, we don't learn
skillful relating from an early age unless the people around us
modeled it. As adults we have to intentionally practice skillful
relating and develop ourselves in relationship. It's simple, but
not easy. No body can do it for you. You have to learn the skills,
practice them and become the best person and partner you can.
The couple I described above obviously had a problem
that needed resolving. One of them has a grievance or complaint
about the way the other's behavior has impacted them. It is fair
and necessary in any relationship to have conversations with one
another about frustrations and/or unmet needs. Skillful feedback
to our partner or loved ones is important and useful. Afterall,
we live with one another, our behavior impacts each other, and
there has to be room in a relationship to discuss what works and
what doesn't work. How else would we grow and change?
"CRYING & SCREAMING" NEVER WORKS
However, most people think that the way to resolve
problems is to accuse the other of doing something wrong. Somewhere
inside our primitive brain, we imagine that if we "cry" loud enough,
or have a big enough "tantrum," express enough displeasure, our
partner (or friend, or boss, or children) will respond by accepting
our point of view and changing. The problem is that this technique
(complaining loudly, having a "tantrum") works only when we are
very little babies. Babies cry and someone usually responds by
meeting a need. In adult relationships this never works. In fact,
it creates just the opposite: defensiveness, anger, and unwillingness
to respond to our needs.
In adult relationships where there is mutual respect,
people are free to talk about their frustrations but they do it
in a grown up way. The art of skillful feedback is especially important
if I am trying to talk to you about one of your behaviors, which
impacts me in a negative way. I must be willing to take 100% responsibility
for the way I feel and what I need. I must be willing to make a
request from you, but let it go if you can't fulfill my request.
Perhaps you can, perhaps you can't, but that is up to you. This
is not easy. But here is the model. To communicate responsibly
and with integrity in intimate relationships, this is one of the
most important skills to practice.
HOW TO PRACTICE SKILLFUL CONFLICT REPAIR
Let's use the restaurant couple as an example; I'll
call them Len and Ruth. If Ruth were able to skillfully talk about
her needs and frustrations with Len, she would begin this way:
R: "Len, I need to talk to you about the way one
of your behaviors is impacting me. Is now a good time?" Notice,
that she is asking for an agreement from Len to even have the conversation.
She is not launching into an attack; she is not even beginning
the conversation until there is a contract. This way, there are
no surprises, and Len has to decide whether he is willing and able
to engage in dialogue about one of his behaviors. If he wants to
say no, he can, but if he is responsible to the relationship, he'll
say no responsibly, meaning, he'll suggest another time for the
conversation and he'll explain why he doesn't feel able to have
it now. Let's assume he says yes so we can go on with the model.
Ruth then says, "Thank you. Here is what is what
is frustrating to me. Last week when you were gone, I didn't hear
from you either on the phone or by email." She states what happened
from her point of view; just the facts as she knows them. Then
she continues, "I felt hurt and deprioritized, and over the week
I started getting angrier and angrier. Just thinking about it right
now makes me really angry." Now she states her feelings. She is
even feeling angry but she is not blaming, shaming or name-calling.
WHAT SHE IMAGINED OR MADE UP IN HER MIND
"I imagined you were so busy, you never thought
of me or the kids once. I imagine your business is more important
than your family." Now Ruth is telling Len what went on in her
head, what she made up about the meaning of his actions. She doesn't
know for sure what it meant because he hasn't told her, so she
is giving him the benefit of the doubt by saying, "I imagine your
business is more important than your family."
LEN IS LISTENING WITHOUT INTERRUPTING.
Meanwhile, Len (who we'll assume is also skillful
at this point) is listening. He is not reacting out loud, although
he may have his own opinions and feelings. He is making time and
space for Ruth's world: her perspective, her feelings, her needs,
and her requests. In adult loving, each person's reality is as
valuable and real as the other's, even if they disagree or don't
RUTH'S NEED, TURNED INTO A REQUEST.
Ruth finishes her feedback with a request. "I need
you to know that it is difficult for me when you are away. I need
to hear from you. My request is that we make several agreed upon
evenings when we can talk by phone, and right now, I'd like to
hear what was going on for you while you were away."
THE COMPLETE FEEDBACK MODEL:
The model that Ruth used is specifically for the times when we
have a behavior change request revolving around a behavior of the
other person that is impacting us in a negative way. Here is the
Step #1. Contract for a conversation. Let the person know that
you want to talk about a way in which their behavior is impacting
Step #2 State the observable facts as best as you can. "When you
are away and don't call"
Step #3. Talk about how you feel or felt: Sad, hurt, angry, disappointed,
Step #4 Talk about what you imagine the other was doing, thinking
etc. Remember that you never know what is going on inside someone
else, unless they tell you. Don't hold on to being right about
what you think. Give them a chance to tell you what was going on.
Step #5 Make a specific, realistic, time-bound, doable request,
e.g. "Please call me two nights during the week you are away at
Step #6 Listen carefully to the response of the other person. They
may have their own point of view; they may need to talk to you
about their feelings and imaginations before they answer yes, or
no. They may not be able to meet your request. That is not your
business. You can always keep talking about it and ask again. Let
go of the results. This is the most difficult step of all.
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR FEELINGS AND NEEDS
The reason this model is sometimes difficult is that
most of us don't really want to take responsibility for our needs,
wants, and feelings. It is easier to blame our loved one or partner
for not giving us what we want. Blaming, and making the other person
wrong is easy but it is not the solution to getting our needs met.
And it certainly doesn't build trust, or intimacy. However, the
rewards of taking responsibility for your needs, frustrations and
requests are immense.
1. You can feel connected with another person even
if you don't see eye to eye.
2. You can ask for what you need and possibly get it.
3. You give the person you love an opportunity to get to know you
better by inviting them into your world in a non-threatening manner.
4. You give them the benefit of the doubt and invite them to tell
you more about themselves.
5. Most importantly, you grow out of old ways of relating to others
that might have created unsatisfying relationships in the past.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
TALKING ABOUT FEELINGS AND ACTING THEM OUT
I have heard it said that relationship skills are
gimmicky; that they are really just tools of manipulation. "Why
would I do this when what I am really feeling is furious and my
impulse is to blame and shame and then leave the situation. That
is more real for me. I don't want to lie just to manipulate my
partner into meeting my needs by being nice and using some technique."
I agree. It is a terrible thing to have to hide (lie)
about one's feelings. Any healthy relationship makes room for deep
feelings of frustration and anger as well as joy and passion. But
hidden in the statement above is the assumption that the only way
real feelings can be expressed is by acting them out. Shaming,
blaming, and leaving are ways we behaved when we were angry five,
six, and seven year olds. Adult loving cannot be based on acting
out. It doesn't work.
Adult loving definitely can include feeling and angry
and expressing the impulse "I feel like leaving this conversation
right now I am so furious." But two adults who want to build intimacy
and trust for the long term have to learn how to behave skillfully
so that both people can stay "in the room" and work through the
difficulty. This is not manipulation; this is skillful relating.
If starting out with a little "script" can help transform old behaviors
into skillful ones, hey! Why not? After awhile, you'll find your
own language and make the dialogue natural to your particular way
THE KEY INGREDIENT IS YOUR INTENTION TO BUILD CONNECTION AND UNDERSTANDING
Len and Ruth are a typical example of many couples. The sad thing
about such relationships is that they do not have to go this way.
With some education, skill practice, and self-awareness a relationship
that is stuck in anger and blame can be transformed into a joyous,
fun, passionate friendship. There are basic principles, and simple
tools that really make a difference. The ingredient the partners
must bring to the tools is the willingness and intention to build
true connection and understanding through learning and practice.
The intention is what we each need to invest into our relationships.
Ask anyone who has done even a little practice. They will tell
you how rewarding it is.