‘The first duty of love is to listen.’ Paul Tillich
One of my all-time favourite relationships: My mom and I in Holland, Spring 2014.
By Johanna Abraham, MSW RSW johannaabraham.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationships – those indispensible but often tricky features of our daily lives – provide more material to wonder, learn and write about than pretty much any other subject in the field of human behaviour. The most frequent problem people seem to run into in their relationships is caused by reactivity. You have likely heard of this before and probably have experienced it first hand. Reactivity is the ramming rod of relationships. And that includes relationships with our partners, spouse, children, co-workers and friends. It is the acid on the delicate flower that grows between you and those you care about.
(Scroll down to “Read on for the details” if you would like to start off where you left off from the newsletter introduction.)
There have been years of research, thousands of books written, and hundreds upon hundreds of intensive courses taught on just this one subject. What I am giving you is a ‘pamphlet version’ of the basics but a worthy summary nonetheless.
What does reactivity look like?
Reactivity looks something like this: He or she (insert person you are struggling with at the moment) says something that upsets you or that you don’t agree with. You respond angrily or defensively either by saying something with hostility or saying nothing with hostility. The other person, now feeling more defensive or upset, lashes back and now it’s your turn to respond in kind. This is what I call ‘building the bonfire’, a classic relationship dynamic where nobody gets heard and everybody gets burned! Left unresolved the coals are always smoldering, and ready to catch fire quickly again. Do you recognize this dynamic?!
What you can do to stop this chain of reactivity:
The plain truth is that you are 100% responsible for your reaction to any and everything. That’s the bad news – there is no one to blame but yourself (and actually you are not to blame either. When you know better, you do better.) The good news, however, is that you can learn to control your reaction, by putting something helpful, productive and useful out there that you can feel good about. Remember that there is almost always at least one more relevant and equally good but different perspective from your own. And, know that your perspective stands a much better chance of being heard and respected if you seek to hear and respect the other’s perspective first.
The hardest part of this process is that you must make a commitment to stick with this process every time regardless of how the other person responds: don’t give up after the first time you tried it and didn’t get the response you were hoping for because sooner or later you will. When you manage your reactivity not only do you feel better about yourself, you are on the only proven path to civilizing your relationships and, in some small but important way, you are contributing to world peace!
Read on for the details:
Someone has said or done something that has got you going, and you are upset or angry or both:
‘Seek to first understand, then to be understood’. Steven Covey
In order to avoid something regrettable from coming out of your mouth as a result of unfettered reactivity, for a moment pay attention to yourself rather than the other person. Notice what’s going on with your emotions and your body: that familiar pit in your stomach, tension mounting in your body, your face and neck heating up, the urge to ‘destroy’ what’s in front of you, a feeling of defensiveness, hurt feelings, maybe hopeless, a desire to flee. Whatever the signs are, even just the action of recognizing them puts a little separation between you and your reaction. This space gives you the vantage point from which to make some decisions about your next move.
Now continue to put on your internal brakes, stopping yourself from reacting further: take a ‘time out’*, count to ten, breathe deeply, bite your tongue, ‘rub over your heart’ (as my grandmother would say), remember how you want to feel when this is over ie: proud of yourself**.
NOTE: While these steps may sound awkward at first, because the net results are so good you learn to use them every time and they start to feel natural.
This is the most important part of this whole process: Instead of indulging your impulse to raise your shield in response to the other person start to listen, really listen for what’s been said to you by the other. Listen without busying yourself with getting your defenses ready. Listen for the perspective of the other. If you are having trouble hearing what’s been said because of the all the emotions that are coming from inside of you, as well as from the other person, ask to take a moment to calm yourself down. (It is not advisable to ask the other person to calm down!!).
Now try listening again. Listen not only to the specifics of what you are being told but for the simultaneous underlying emotional message: ‘I am hurt, sad, frustrated, exhausted, feeling hopeless, misunderstood, left out, neglected, afraid…’ Is it possible that they are hurt and angry because they feel unheard while you have been so busy defending yourself?
Now that you’ve slowed down the action, put down your weapon and lowered your shield, ask the other for clarification about their perspective. This is the part where you will be practicing a version of the much lampooned ‘therapist speak’, “What I hear you saying is…” The point is that you want to see if what you are understanding about the other person is actually what the other person is trying to communicate to you. Your intention here is to let the other person know that you are sincere about your wish to understand them. You need to demonstrate this not just in your words, but in your tone as well. “What was it you were trying to say about…?”, “Can you tell me more about what you meant when you said…”, “I thought I heard you say… Is that true?”, “You mean when I do this it makes you feel this…?”
‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place!’ George Bernard Shaw
Now, if you are lucky it might be that the other person, feeling heard by you, reciprocates your generosity immediately and shows an open curiosity about your point of view but don’t count on it! It usually takes a while before the other person catches on, puts down their weapon and becomes willing to hear you out. So, if the other person does not respond in the way that you had hoped for right away you must continue to keep your cool and stick with your interest in the other person’s need or perspective.
This is the hardest part for humans to manage: to keep doing the right thing in spite of how the other person reacts. For now, you will need to quiet the hurt, indignant or frustrated voice in your head that says ‘well I tried and it didn’t work, the other person clearly doesn’t care,’ etc. (Note: This is where a qualified therapist can help get you through this impasse and the many questions that come up around your feelings.)
When it looks like the opportunity has arrived to state your case how you do so – your tone of voice, expression, choice of words – is critical if you truly want to stop the combat or douse the flames of the bonfire. Some guidelines are: Don’t use accusatory or blaming language, this will be inflammatory. Show your true feelings – not the angry overture but the hurt or concerned or sad underneath feelings. BE HONEST about how you feel not about how you think the other should behave or feel. And, in the midst of expressing how you feel if you have an insight into the other’s perspective, be sure to say something. Weaving in the other with a non-aggressive tone, will help bring them closer to seeing your point of view.
Things to consider:
*Take a ‘time out’ if you have to. Leave the room. Ask for a minute to collect your thoughts. If you need to actually leave the conversation to pull your self together be sure to let the person know what you are doing and when you will be back to continue the conversation. If you neglect to state your intension to come back to the conversation in a given amount of time the reactivity in the other person will escalate further (you have probably ‘been there, done that’ yourself!).
** If you can do nothing else, fake it if you need too. It is easier to change behaviours than it is to change feelings or thoughts,
As with everything in life there are exceptions to this process of calming reactivity. If on the rare occasion you allow yourself to react fully and let your unfiltered feelings be known this can sometimes be effective communicating unmistakably how you feel. But again, do this as infrequently as possible.
Most of us ramp up the intensity of our opinion or our feelings when we feel backed into a corner or feel unheard. In contrast, when heard, we tend to be less black and white, more flexible about our point of view.
If you catch yourself saying “This is what I hear you saying but I feel/think/believe…” When you stick a ‘but’ in mid-sentence you are essentially disqualifying everything that came before it. Stifle the urge to throw in your point of view when summarizing what you believe to be the other’s perspective. Again, this is where a skilled therapist can help you make your way through the tricky parts.
‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ Mahatma Gandhi
If you would like some assistance in putting this process into practice I would be happy to help you. You can come with your partner, spouse, child, mother-in-law etc. but you don’t need the other person in attendance to make things change for the better.
Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com
Check out my website at http://www.johannaabraham.com
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