But good communication in marriage is not enough, unless that communication leads you to a closer connection with your partner.
Communication is not really the problem in marriage. Feeling disconnected is.
You can have good communication and not feel connected.
I’m not saying communication is not important, because you can’t connect without communicating. What I’m saying is you can communicate without connecting.
Sometimes you may communicate perfectly and still trigger each other’s defenses.
Whenever defenses are triggered, the space between you becomes negative. Negativity makes a conversation unsafe, and that’s what keeps you from connecting.
Whether it’s criticism in your communication, or a judgmental reaction to your partner’s words, this kind of communication will prevent connection and conflict will be the result.
Talking with criticism or listening with judgment can make any subject a contentious one. And that’s when we blame our relationship failure on “communication problems”.
On the other hand, when you talk in a way that leaves you feeling connected, then you can more easily deal with every problem in your relationship.
The Safe Conversation model (aka The Couple’s Dialogue) is a tool that will help you communicate in a way that leads to connection.
Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have defined a Safe Conversation as…
A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.
Let’s consider how this can work for us.
1. Talking without criticizing
Janet said to her husband Rob, “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep eating like that! You know that white sugar is poison!”
Communication? There is no question about what Janet is communicating. It’s crystal clear. But what do you think Rob’s response would be to this kind of communication?
He’d probably see it as criticism, and react by judging Janet’s intent as being disrespectful or controlling. Right?
“Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”
And then this reaction would then trigger further frustration on Janet’s part.
“You never listen to me.”
This downward spiral began with a critical comment.
A safe conversation can eliminate that.
You can talk about almost anything if you’ll say it in a respectful way without criticism.
It’s not what you say but how you say it. Whatever it is you’re talking about is secondary.
As safe conversation is like a truck moving produce. The truck will deliver whatever it’s carrying: wheat, corn, beans or potatoes, it doesn’t matter.
In the same way a safe conversation will deliver any kind of message you want to send: appreciation, frustration, things you want, or things you need from your partner, it doesn’t matter. Like the truck moving the cargo, a safe conversation will deliver the goods.
So what would a Safe Conversation look like in this case?
1) Use “I statements” rather than “you statements”
Instead of saying “you” and then criticizing Rob, Janet could start by using “I” statements to share two things: “what I saw or heard” and “what I felt”.
And then she add any other thoughts or feelings that come to mind.
“When I saw you eating donuts, I felt anxious. My mother had diabetes and died at an early age and I’m afraid of something happening to you.”
2) Watch the non-verbal messages you’re sending
Often, things like a sigh, a glare, or a rolling of the eyes communicate negativity.
It will be really helpful if Janet conveys a soft look in her eyes and speaks in a kind tone.
It’s the non-verbal gestures that actually do most of our communicating.
3) Regulate your own emotional reaction
When Janet speaks in this way, she is working to regulate her reaction and the fear that drives her criticism.
This gives Rob a chance to control his own reaction, and perhaps listen with curiosity.
So, when you’re talking, use I statements, watch your non-verbal messages, and regulate your reaction to what you’ve seen and heard.
These steps will help do a lot to make the conversation safe and thus easier for your partner to listen and connect with you.
The problem may not be that your partner is not listening well. The problem may be that you’re not communicating in a way that can be heard.
Talking without criticizing can help make it safe to talk about even the most difficult issues.
2. Listening without judgment
What’s Rob’s part in this?
Rob stirred the pot by reacting with, “Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”
What if he were to regulate his own reaction for the moment?
You know Janet is really a decent person. What if Rob were to become curious about what feelings are driving her insensitive comment.
The three-part Safe Conversation model is designed to help you do that.
Here’s what it might look like:
What if Rob simply mirrored back to Janet what she said?
Mirroring says to your partner, “You matter. What you have to say matters.”
Here’s what that might look like:
“Let me see if I got what you’re saying. You’re saying that when I ate that second donut, you felt anxious. Your mother had diabetes and died at an early age, and you’re afraid of something happening to me.”
Did I get it? (checking for accuracy)
Is there more about that? (curiosity)
Checking to get 100%, and then becoming curious about your partner has a powerful effect, making your partner feel like she or he matters.
The second step is…
Validation is when you say to your partner, “Although I may see things differently, you make sense.” And then you tell your partner what makes sense about what she or he just said.
“Janet, you make sense. It makes sense that because you experienced such a loss when your mother died, you’d naturally be anxious when you see me not being careful about my sugar intake. That makes sense.
“Does that give you the validation you need?” (always check to see)
And finally, empathy is when you feel what your partner is feeling about the issue.
“And I can imagine that you’re feeling really scared. I’ve felt afraid when I thought of losing someone. And that feels really bad.”
Empathy enables you to be present with your partner in the midst of their fears. This enables you to connect emotionally, on a deeper, heart level. This will also bring a measure of healing to the wound that is driving your partner’s fear.
3. Connecting beyond our differences
As Rob and Janet connect, their differences over diet may not change. But empathy will enable them to connect beyond their differences.
You say, well, what if I can’t accept the difference? What if it’s not just an addiction to sweets, but an addiction to say, alcohol.
Then it may be necessary to ask for a change in behavior. But in my experience Rob would be much more open to Janet’s request if they feel connected.
On the other hand, if they continued being defensive and feeling disconnected, the fight would go on and on and on. Right?
What about you?
You too can learn to communicate in a way that leads to closer connection with your partner.
By talking without criticizing, listening without judging, and connecting beyond your differences.
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Talking is only one part of the communication process in marriage. Real communication happens when we listen too.
Duh? Really? I kind of knew that.
But did you know that in an average conversation one partner hears only 13% of what the other partner is saying?
We may be good at talking, but evidently we’re lousy at listening.
Here’s how being a good listener can radically improve your marriage.
Every time Lloyd would share his frustration with Fran, her reaction would shut down her ability to listen.
No doubt part of the problem was how Lloyd talked to her.
It’s not what you say but how you say it that matters.
Lloyd: “When I came home I felt like you practically threw the baby and me, and start barking orders. I know you’ve had a hard day, but you act as if I’ve done nothing all day. I work hard and I don’t deserve this when I get home.”
OK Lloyd, let’s back up and start over! No wonder your wife is not listening! You’ll never get anywhere saying it like that! Can you stop using accusatory “you” statements and talk about what “I” am experiencing in a way your partner can hear you?!
The first rule of “safe” communication is guess what? SAFE! It has to be SAFE!
LLOYD (second try): “When I came home it seemed you were frustrated, and you told me to take the baby and the dog for a walk. When I heard that, I felt like I didn’t get a chance to take a breath from the stressful day I had.”
Even with Lloyd working at being a better SENDER of info, this usually turns into an argument with Fran.
FRAN: “You think YOU’VE had a stressful day! Come on! I’ve seen you at work. Making some calls, then having a leisurely lunch with your co-workers. Try being here with the kids all day! I wish I had an office to escape to!”
Come on Fran, these are fighting words and you know it. Use your skills now. Make it SAFE.
In order to have a safe and productive conversation, you have to have SENDER and RECEIVER responsibility.
But today is about listening…so what can a RECEIVER do to become a better listener?
Try these three steps.
1. Mirror your partner’s words.
Repeat back what you heard as close as possible to how it was said.
“OK Chuck, you keep talking about “mirroring”. That’s a counseling tool. This is real life where the pace of life makes your head spin. I can’t stop in the middle of everything to use this rigid therapeutic structure you’re talking about.”
I get that.
You don’t want to come off like you’re using some counseling technique in a normal conversation. But there’s good news.
You can still tap into the power of mirroring as a listening tool.
So, as your partner is talking, listen with the purpose of mirroring.
How do I do that?
After a few sentences, stop your partner and say something like…
“If I get what you’re saying, you said…” and simply repeat what you heard.
Or, “What I hear you saying is…”
This will help you regulate your emotions AND give your partner a good feeling.
A feeling of being heard. A feeling of being valued. A feeling that his or her words matter.
Think about it. If the average partner hears only 13%, what will be the impact when you hear 100% of what you’re partner is saying
Mirroring can help you do that.
Your partner will feel safe and be able to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.
FRAN: “Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. I heard you say, you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.”
That’s good Fran! Now go to step 2.
2. Check your accuracy.
After you’ve mirrored your partner’s words, check for accuracy by saying something like, “Did I get it?” And then keep listening for any corrections or clarifications.
Then, mirror those additions back to your partner as well.
Continue to check your accuracy until your partner tells you, “You got it.”
3. Turn on your curiosity.
Ask, “Is there more about that?”
That question will continue to make it safe for your partner to access more of what they are really feeling and thinking.
And for you, as a listener, it will turn on your curiosity like a switch turns on a light.
Curiosity is vital to being a good listener. Why? Because it empowers me to regulate my emotional reaction.
Listening breaks down when I start feeling reactive to something that is said. Something I think is not true. Something that is different from my reality. Something that is not according to the way I see things.
When that happens my auto-response is to stop listening and start “reloading” what I want to say in reaction. At that point I’m not listening to my partner. I’m listening to myself.
As human beings we have a fundamental, unconscious objection to difference. This objection to difference happens when we don’t feel connected. And it’s a paradox, because you can’t get to connection when you object to difference.
When I object to difference, it produces polarization. And that shuts down my ability to listen.
Curiosity is what disrupts that objection to difference, allowing me to listen to everything my partner is saying.
Asking, “Is there more about that?”, does a number on my brain. I cannot be curious and object to difference at the same time. The brain pathways cannot run those two directions at once.
So now I’m in control, not my emotions!
Curiosity helps me hold my reality and my partner’s reality at the same time – to be able to see that we are different, and that it’s OK.
Let’s pick up where we left off with Fran…
FRAN: “Lloyd, what I hear you saying is that I seemed frustrated and told you to take the baby and dog for a walk. You said you’ve had a stressful day, and didn’t feel like you had a chance to catch your breath.”
“Is there more about that?”
LLOYD: “Yes, I guess I’m feeling like what I do doesn’t matter. That reminds me of how hard I worked to make straight A’s growing up, and even when I succeeded, it felt like it didn’t matter.”
Whoa! What’s happening here?
Lloyd realized that his upset was not just about Fran’s comment. It was related to the baggage of the past he was carrying.
Because Fran made it safe and really listened to Lloyd, he got in touch with his deeper issue.
They both realized that the conflict was about the deeper pain that Lloyd felt – that what he did didn’t matter.
This part of Lloyd’s world instantly became integrated into their relationship. And Fran grew in a new capacity and sensitivity to Lloyd.
The result? Transformation.
All because one partner decided to listen!
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Is your marriage stuck in a vicious cycle of blaming and defensiveness? Here’s why that happens, and what to do about it.
Marriages get stuck in this kind of destructive cycle because of what we call “symbiosis”.
Symbiosis is living together as if you are one. It’s another way of saying “being dependent on one another”. But this kind of dependence goes way overboard and is not healthy.
In the romantic stage symbiosis is pleasurable, because I’m under the illusion that my partner and I are the same.
We think alike. We feel alike. We don’t need words to understand each other. We feel like we’ve truly found our soulmate.
But after the love chemicals wear off and the power struggle stage begins, symbiosis is painful.
Symbiosis is painful because I discover that my partner is an “other” person with their own needs, desires, hurts, experiences, and perspective.
That’s when I get stuck in my own self-absorption. So does my partner.
– I can only see my reality.
– I believe my reality is the only true description of reality.
– One of us is right and the other is wrong.
– “You and I are one, and I’m the one!”
Whenever I discover that my partner is different, my reality is challenged, and I can feel deeply betrayed.
That’s when the blaming and defensive cycle begins.
Here’s an example of symbiosis with two realities colliding.
SHE:“Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until it’s full so we don’t waste energy.”
HE:“You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing. They’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”
SHE:“You never listen to me!!”
HE : “You’re always telling me what to do!!”
Wow, Sandy and I have had that kind of exchange countless times! How about you?
So how do I break out of this cycle of blaming and defensiveness?
Differentiation is the process that helps us get unstuck.
Differentiation is when you begin to see and accept your partner as different, as an “other” person.
Differentiation is when you can hold your reality and your partner’s reality at the same time.
The Couple’s Dialogue is a powerful tool that can help a couple experience differentiation.
Here’s what it might look like in the example above.
HE: Mirrors and validates his partner’s desire to have the dishes face inward, the silverware sorted, and the dishwasher full before being used.
In that safe context where he has regulated his own reactions, he sees that her perspective really does make sense. And he lets her know that he gets it.
SHE: Having her reality validated, she feels safe and is open to seeing his reality.
She mirrors and validates his view that the dishes will get clean facing inward or outward. That the silverware can be sorted just as easily after they’re clean. And that having a few empty spaces in the dishwasher is not a huge expense.
Although she sees it differently, his view makes sense to her.
In the process, she realizes that there is really no right or wrong way to do it – just different ways.
She lets him know she gets it.
HE and SHE: They both feel safe and validated. As a result they both are now are open to new ways of washing the dishes.
Neither are holding on to their view for dear life. Neither are driven to prove themselves right.
Differentiation dissolves the symbiosis and self-absorption.
And, bingo, the blaming and defensiveness stops!
Watch the video below as Genevieve and Mike demonstrate the Couples Dialogue. Notice what happens to Genevieve when she feels validated by Mike.
That’s how it’s done!
Let’s turn symbiosis and self-absorption into healthy differentiation and deeper connection…
…and stop the blaming and defensiveness!
Let me know if I can help. I’ve been doing lots of Skype calls with couples over the past few weeks. I’d love to help coach you if you need it. Click here to find out more.
Post your comments below in the comment section. Share your insights and questions. See you next week!
My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.