Marriage: How Do You Know You’ve Found “The One”?

I’ve attended a lot of weddings this summer (my own included in that).  And in going to so many weddings, the question naturally arises “how do you know when you’ve found ‘the one’?”

This is a very anxiety producing question in our culture.  Many of us were raised on a diet of fairy tale love stories, Disney movies, and rom-coms that depict moments where the light bulb goes off, things click, and suddenly the characters in the story just know that this other person is the one they want to spend the rest of their lives with.

And while that makes for a good story, real life doesn’t actually work that way all the time.  Often there is much more ambiguity.  “He makes me smile and laugh, but I don’t know how he’s going to be with kids.”  “She really understands me and I feel really close to her, but am I ready to commit to something for the rest of my life?”  “He is a great partner, I feel emotionally safe with him, we have fun together, I know he’s going to be committed and loving…but I always imagined there would be more passion, so am I settling?”

Deciding if it is time to get married, to move the relationship deeper, is difficult.  And yet, it is a decision that must be made because without movement and change, relationships stagnate and die.  So how do you know when you’ve found “the one?”

First, ask yourself if you feel safe and supportive in being your most authentic self around them.  This is jokingly called the “farting-in-bed test,” but really there is so much more to authenticity than normal human bodily functions.  Can you share your biggest regrets with this person without them putting you down or rubbing it in your face?  Can you exhibit all your shadow qualities in front of them and still have their unconditional love?  Note that my questions aren’t about your feelings.  I’m not asking “can you share your biggest regrets with this person and not be afraid of being put down”…I am asking “can you share your biggest regrets with this person and not be put down?”  You’ll always be scared that this other person won’t love the parts of you where you’ve fallen short, made mistakes, and do things that aren’t attractive.  So it isn’t about finding a relationship where you don’t feel that fear because you probably will never find that relationship.  It is about finding a relationship where that fear rarely or never materializes.

Second, ask yourself if this person helps you grow.  Does being in a relationship with this person push you to gain new relationship skills, dig deeper in understanding yourself, or be a more loving presence in the world?  In this relationship do you feel invited to grow or do you feel like you are just getting by?  The most meaningful relationships in our lives are the ones that lead us towards growth.  Every single one of my most meaningful friendships, past girl-friends, and relationships with clients are ones where I learned something about myself or grew in some new capacity.  Again, notice that my question is about being in the relationship, not about what your partner does.  It is not about your partner forcing you, pestering you, or shaming you into changing.  Even if they claim they are doing it so that you can “grow.”  If your partner pushes you to change, then go back and consider whether you can be your most authentic self with this person.

And finally, how do you know if you’ve found the one?  You don’t.  You don’t know because in part there probably isn’t just one person who is your soul mate and completes you.  Be wary of the notion that the person you marry should somehow complete you, or make you whole, that is the definition of co-dependency.  And in life there are no guarantees.  So this anxiety over “is this the one” is overblown.  There is no such thing as “the one,” and even if they are that “one” right now it doesn’t guarantee they will be that “one” for the rest of your lives.

So ultimately answering that question comes down to courage and trust.

September 26, 2016Permalink

Me & Not Me

I want to share with you one of my favorite exercises that helps people set boundaries.  It’s called “Me & Not Me”.

One of the key obstacles to setting boundaries is a difficulty in separating oneself from others.  Now, that might sound silly.  Of course you know who you are, and that you are a separate person from your partner or your friends.  But there are all sorts of sneaky ways in which that distinction become blurry.

One way is by taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts, or experience.  Do you feel like your partner’s happiness is your responsibility?  When you host an event are you so overly anxious about everyone else having a good time, that you in fact don’t have a fun time?  When you share your honest and respectful opinion with others, and they clearly are displeased, do you feel obligated to “fix it”?

If so, then the distinction between self and other isn’t all that clear.

Or maybe you have a hard time figuring out what you actually prefer.  When you’re among your friends are you acting like a chameleon, trying to fit in to whatever they want to do, and agreeing with whatever “the group” thinks or feels?  When you try to figure out what you really want, do you find yourself weighing what others think and feel about various options?

If so, then the distinction between self and other isn’t all that clear.

Maybe none of the above is true for you, but perhaps you are someone who simply leaps into action as soon as you hear that someone close to you is having trouble with something.  When a close friend or family member tells you about a problem they’re having at work do you immediately start giving advice, and perhaps even doing your own research to find solutions?  When you see a system that isn’t working at your job or an organization you volunteer at, do you immediately start trying to fix it, even if it doesn’t directly affect you?  Do you find yourself burnt out because you’ve been doing too much to help others and not enough to take care of yourself?

That may be because the distinction between yourself and others has become blurred.

So if now you think that there’s an area in your life where the distinction between self and other is blurry, then let’s dive in together into an exercise that will help make that distinction more clear.

First, bring to mind a specific person and/or circumstance where that distinction between self and other is blurry.  Do whatever you need to do to bring that “alive” for you in this moment.  Maybe there’s a word or phrase that really triggers your taking on too much responsibility. Or maybe you just need to play a specific memory in your head like a video.  Do whatever you need to do to bring that moment into this moment.

Now, I want you to close your eyes.  Take a few deep breathes and notice your body.  Notice that you take up space, and that that space is limited.  Go ahead and draw a circle around yourself, either mentally or just with your finger.  This is your personal bubble, some need more personal space, others need less, but whatever amount of personal bubble space you need is exactly right.  As you breathe let yourself take up the space of that circle.  Say to yourself “this is me.”

Now, picture this other person and/or circumstance outside of that circle.  As you picture them on the outside of the circle, raise your hands, palms facing them, and say “that is not me.”

Turn your palms towards yourself, bring your arms and hands in so that you are almost touching your chest and say “this is me.”

Repeat that process three or four times.  Turn your palms away from you and extend your arms, “not me.”  Turn your palms towards you, and bring your arms in, “this is me.”

After repeating that process check in with yourself.  Is the distinction between yourself and others more clear?  Do you feel less responsible for other people’s experience, thoughts, and feelings?  Is it more clear to you what your preferences are versus what their preferences are?

This is the foundation of developing strong and healthy boundaries.

 

 

September 12, 2016Permalink

Three Essentials to Staying Connected in Stressful Times

Relationships have seasons. Sometimes a relationship is in a season of peace and tranquility.  And sometimes a relationship is in a season of stress and frustration.

These difficult seasons are inevitable.  My now wife and I just got married in July (regular readers may have noticed a lack of blog posts that month).  And while it was a wonderful celebration, it certainly was a stressful build up.  If our relationships are going to last, then we need to know how to stay connected to our partners during those stressful times.  It seems to me that there are three essentials to staying together.

The first is patience & forgiveness.  When you, or I, are stressed we rarely behave at our best.  And this is also true about your partner.  When you’re stressed you might become more forgetful, or you might become much more focused on managing every detail, or you might have sudden outbursts of “grumpiness.”  You have a stress reaction and so does your partner.  That isn’t going away.

So instead of wishing your partner would stop doing that annoying stress reaction, we need to practice patience and forgiveness.  But how?  Next time you need to practice patience & forgiveness try one of these three exercises:

  1. When you’re near your limit, take a break.  Politely and kindly excuse yourself, and then go and do something comforting for yourself.  Even if it’s only for five minutes.  Go take the dog for a walk, listen to some calming music, enjoy some self-empathy.  If you can find a way to lower your stress levels your natural compassion will start to kick back in.
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  2. Repeat to yourself “this is my partner’s five year old.”  Our stress reactions are usually a learned habit from when we were very young.  We developed some coping mechanism when we were young that were very effective then, but at some point along the way became less effective.  If you can remember that when your partner is reacting poorly to stress they’ve reverted a younger version of yourself, then maybe you can show the same kind of patience and gentleness that you’d show a scared and upset five year old (but don’t ever tell your partner they’re acting like a child, THAT won’t help).
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  3. Don’t bring it up.  Notice when you’re about to bring something up from earlier, and see if you can just let it go.  This is a practice in meditation.  To do this you have to be aware of your thoughts and impulses, and then have the centeredness to allow those thoughts and impulses to float by without reacting.  This is possible, and you’ll be amazed at how many things can really float if you don’t react to them

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The second essential to staying connected in stressful times is generosity.  Generosity can take many forms.  Maybe we take on a few extra cleaning duties.  Maybe we pick up the slack that our partner hasn’t noticed and just don’t mention it.  Maybe it looks like taking our partner out on a date night.  We need to actively try to help lower our partner’s stress levels.  I know they are annoying you and you probably don’t feel like taking them out on a date.  But doing that extra nice thing can make a huge difference.

And finally, we need to take responsibility for ourselves.  The previous two essentials both dealt with how to address your partner when they are stressing out.  This final essential is about how to address the fact that you’re stressing out too.  You have to take responsibility for yourself and your reactions to stress.  It isn’t your partner’s fault that you’re grumpy or that you’re managing all the details.  It isn’t life being unfair.  Your reaction is totally your reaction.  So own up to it, let your partner know that you’re aware that your acting irrationally.  Take stock of when you need to unwind, and take that time.  If there are things that your partner could do to help you relax, be specific and ask them for help.  You are the best tool you have for helping yourself manage and navigate stress.

 

August 15, 2016Permalink

Feelings: The Language of Connection

Time and time again, the most powerful shift in couples I coach happens when they start expressing their feelings to one another.  Our emotions are truly the language of connection.  And so it is tragic that we in the West have mostly been cut off from our feelings.

Emotions are not simply whatever we put after the phrase “I feel…”  Unfortunately, we’ve learned to replace feelings with lots of thoughts.   “I feel like you don’t care about me.”  “I feel left out.”  “I feel judged.”  These are all thoughts presented as feelings.  A great litmus test to determine if you’re talking about a feeling or thought is the phrase “you ___ me.”  If you fill in that phrase and it makes grammatical sense then it is likely you are expressing a thought rather than a feeling.  “You don’t care about me”, “you left me out”, and “you judged me” are all thoughts and not feelings.

Alternatively “you happy me”, “you sad me”, and “you angry me” don’t make grammatical sense, and so are actually feelings and not thoughts.  Many of us use the words “I feel” as if they are magic words that make everything that comes after them a subjective emotional experience.  But humans see through that.  Saying “I feel judged” and “I feel hurt” have two very different impacts upon listeners.

So why does sharing our thoughts lead to so much antagonism and conflict, while expressing our feelings raises the probability of experiencing connection?  There are two reasons for this.  One is that thoughts inherently have a true or false value.  A thought is either “right” or it is “wrong”.  And none of us really want to be “wrong”, especially when we are in conflict.  This is because our culture shames us for being “wrong”.  When we are “wrong” we get bad grades in school, we sometimes subject to ridicule, and often we are treated with more mistrust.  And so it is only natural that we will do almost anything to prove ourselves “right”.

But unfortunately this “right” vs. “wrong” game is at the center of unhealthy conflict.  As long as you see conflict as essentially being about who is “right” and who is “wrong”, you will be stuck in a loop of conflict.  You may be able to win a particular “battle” but the war will never end.

The second reason why sharing our emotions helps create connection is because feelings are universal and illicit an empathetic reaction in others.  We all experience the same emotions.  We all know what it is like to feel sad, lonely, shame, hurt, and joy.  And so emotions are the easiest way for me to empathize with your experience.  And emotions naturally illicit that empathetic reaction because to express our feelings is a vulnerable act.  When we speak with vulnerability, others are naturally drawn to empathetic reactions.  While this isn’t a guarantee, it is much more likely for a listener to react with empathy to “I feel hurt” than “I feel judged”.

So consider building your feelings vocabulary.  Practice identifying and expressing your emotions, even if you start by just doing this with yourself.  You can even do the deeper practice of finding what emotions lie behind your thoughts.  Translating your thoughts into feelings is at the heart of the work of making your communication more compassionate and a bridge to connection.

June 27, 2016Permalink

Needs: The Signposts of the Soul

We all have needs.  And those needs go far beyond just air, food, water, and shelter.

We need love, warmth, acceptance, community, friendship, honesty, respect, connection, and the list goes on and on and on.  The Center for Nonviolent Communication has created a wonderful list of potential needs.  This list is not meant to be all inclusive, but it gives you an idea of all the various things we need.

Our needs are truly the signposts of our souls.  To unpack that statement I first need to be clear on the difference between needs and desires.  There is a helpful acronym: P.L.A.T.O. which stands for “person, location, action, time, and object”.  If at any point you are thinking about or asking for a specific person, location, action, time or object then you are talking about a desire rather than a need.

For example:  “I need you to stop talking so I can get this work done.”  That example is an expression of a desire not a need.  The statement includes a specific person (“you”), doing a specific action (“stop talking”) and presumably at a specific time (“now”).  So the real needs that lie under that statement may be things like “focus”, “help”, “quiet”, or “peace”.

But isn’t that just splitting hairs?  No, and this is where the signpost comes in, because YOUR needs are a sign for YOU of what YOU need.

In the example of “I need you to stop talking” the focus is on the other person.  Even though the sentence starts with the word “I”, the underlying message is “you need to stop talking.”  But in fact the other person doesn’t need to stop talking!  Clearly their inner most self is desiring maybe “connection”, “partnership”, or “play” so what they need is to talk.  The speaker’s inner most self is needing “focus” or maybe “quiet”.  Do you see that difference?

In this way we often project our needs onto others.  So going back to the example, if the person who needs “focus” or “quiet” owns their need, and doesn’t project those needs onto the other person, then they now have the power to take care of themselves.  Instead of relying upon this other person to “get with the program” they can take steps to meet their own needs for “focus” or “quiet.”

Of course, one strategy to get those needs met might be to ask this person to stop talking.  But when I own my needs, and don’t put them on other people, then all I can do is ask them to help me, not demand it.  So instead of “I need you to stop talking”, it might look like “Could we talk at a later time?  I’d love to connect with you, but right now I really need some focus so I can get my work done.”

But if the person says no, if I’ve owned that my need for “focus” is a sign to me of what I need then I can go about finding other ways to get it met.  Maybe I suggest to this other person “hey, let’s take a walk and chat, but when we get back I really need to focus” or “hey, I really need to focus so I can’t talk right now.  I’ll go back into the study/bedroom/living room/etc, and maybe you can call your friend to chat.”

You see our needs are messages, signposts, from our inner most self, our soul, telling us what we need.  They are not messages about what other people should, ought, or need to do.

May 29, 2016Permalink

Navigating the Intimacy Paradox

Intimacy is a paradox.

We both crave it, and hate it.

Richard Rohr, in his book Immortal Diamond clearly and succinctly summarizes this paradox:  “intimacy happens when we reveal and expose our insides, and this is always scary.  One never knows if the other can receive what is exposed, will respect it, or will run fast in the other direction.  One must be prepared to be rejected.  It is always a risk.”

And yet, “such risky self-disclosure is what I mean by intimacy, and intimacy is the way that love is transmitted.”

This tension of our craving love which comes through intimacy and wanting to shield and protect ourselves from rejection and hurt will always be there.  Intimacy is a paradox.

If an intimate, personal, deep relationship is going to survive, then two partners are going to need to learn how to wade through this intimacy paradox.  And I want to suggest that a core ingredient to living with the tension is creating safety.

How?

Actively choosing to be warm.  Choosing to be warm is choosing to be supportive rather than negative.  It’s choosing to be patient rather than hurrying.  It’s choosing to be understanding rather than critical.

I imagine you’ve experienced someone whom you’d describe as warm, or warm hearted.  And maybe you think that’s the result of some innate personality quality, in their genes, or simply a wonderful life.  But the truth is it’s a choice.  People choose to be warm every day, and often they choose to be a warm presence in the world because they know what it’s like to experience coldness.

To practice choosing to be warm:  think of your friend, partner, someone you already trust and care about.  Picture them, imagine and connect with specific things about them you appreciate, care about, and cherish.  Be in that state of warmth.  With practice you can do this also with co-workers, bosses, acquaintances, and people who drive you crazy.

Verbalize your understanding, compassion, empathy, and support.  Yes, you’re going to have judgmental thoughts. Whomever you’re trying to build intimacy with will probably share something at some point that you’ll want to reject.  But that doesn’t mean your partner needs to hear those words.  And please, don’t mask judgment with advice.

Advice is so often rejected because people don’t experience compassion and understanding in advice.  People experience empathy through someone else acknowledging their feelings, concerns, fears, and insecurities.  Choosing to not fixate on my judgmental thoughts, and rather turning my attention to what’s going on for you in this moment.

Finally, be present.  Be here and now.  Set aside any distractions whether physical or mental.  Give the other person your full attention.  Breathe a little slower, take your time, slow your brain down, and take in the other’s self-disclosure as it unfolds.  You’ll also have tons of thoughts and other mental distractions.  But just like choosing to not fixate on judgmental thoughts, we also need to choose to not let our brains distract us mentally.  Your thoughts can only distract you with your consent.

Finally, practice being present by meditating.  Move slowly and pay attention to every detail while washing the dishes or walking the dog.  Pay close attention to the taste and texture of food while you eat.  Anything that brings you more into the present moment.

May 2, 2016Permalink

“Well, I Didn’t Mean It Like That…”

“Well, I didn’t mean it like that…”

Sometimes you, and I, try to apologize for the impact our words have on others by trying to explain the intention behind them.

Certainly sometimes explaining our intention is helpful in terms of clearing up a misunderstanding.  But have you ever tried to explain your intention and met with even more hurt, anger, resentment, and shut down?  That’s because explaining your intention isn’t an effective way of apologizing.

Explaining your intention can be a way of denying the impact of your words.  If my friend hears me calling him “irresponsible”, and I respond “well, I didn’t mean that”, I am avoiding the fact that my friend was hurt.  I am essentially telling my friend “you shouldn’t feel upset or hurt because I didn’t say what you think I said, and so you experience is wrong.”  Oof.  If we really spelled it out like that it is easy to see why that message is offensive.

Sometimes it is true that other people hear things that we didn’t say.  However, telling them that they are wrong for being upset or hurt doesn’t actually help.  In Compassionate Communication, all emotional pain (hurt, anger, disappointment, sad, scared, etc.) is a signal of disconnection.  So when my friend hears in his head me calling him “irresponsible”, he becomes disconnected from me, and thus experiences the pain of feeling hurt and upset.

Compassionate Communication teaches that the only way to heal disconnection is through empathy.  Again, for minor offenses maybe clearing up a simple misunderstanding is sufficient to reconnect.  But when someone experiences a lot of emotional pain from our words, they need empathy to try to reconnect.

Now, empathy is not the same thing as agreeing.  So I can empathize with my friend who heard me call him “irresponsible” without agreeing that I called him that.  How?  By connecting with his feelings and needs.  “Oh wow, I’ve really hurt you by saying something that makes you think I called you ‘irresponsible’.  I’m sorry.  It seems like you feel angry and hurt that I maybe don’t fully respect/trust/think well of you?”  I am trying to show compassionate understanding to the emotional experience my friend is having in this moment.  Nothing more.

Once my friend and I are reconnected, then I have a better chance of clearing up my actual intention.

My final thought, when you think the impact your words had on someone is out of sync with your intention, before you question their experience examine your intention.  Our behavior when we are triggered to a fight-flight-freeze reaction is driven by subconscious drives and impulses.  Even when we’re calm, our subconscious plays a role in our behavior.  Sometimes it can take minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days before we fully know why we said or did a certain thing.  So before you jump to explain that your intentions were pure, good; take at least a few moments to consider whether some part of you really did intend the impact experienced.

And if you discover that there was a part of you that intended the impact that was experienced, then confess it.  Admit it to your friend, partner, family member, coworker, boss.  Authentic connection is only possible with real honesty.

 

April 18, 2016Permalink

What Surrounds You Shapes You

I saw this powerful PSA on Facebook the other day:

Powerful, right?

It’s true, children are sponges.  Whatever their parents (& peers) say and do, they absorb it and it shapes how they act.  And those models stay there for a long time.

I am not a parent, and so I have no business dispensing parenting advice.  So I won’t.  But I do want to say to all you adults, that the way you communicate is a product of how you were communicated with as a child.  Not only how your parents talked to you, but also how your peers and friends talked to you.  Your communication style is a product of the media you consumed growing up, what you saw as cool and admirable.  You didn’t learn what to think and how to behave in a vacuum.

The way you and I were raised, the kind of environment we grew up in shapes how we act in the world today.  I was raised to “go for my dreams” and so I live with this belief that the work I do in the world needs to be personally fulfilling, and I avoid work that I label as “drudgery”.  Many people are raised to “make sure there’s food on the table” and so they live with this belief that getting any work is good work, and that whether it is fulfilling or not, you have to do whatever you need to do to make a paycheck.

It’s not about one kind of culture and upbringing being better or worse.  In fact seeing one as better than another is also a product of the culture that surrounds you.  So it’s not about judging some people as having a “better” or “worse” upbringing, it is about learning what has shaped you.  It’s about uncovering how the culture you grew up in shapes your behavior today, so you can decide how you actually want to act.  And it is about deciding if what you have currently surrounded yourself with is shaping you into the person you want to be.

Because this blog post isn’t just about what happened to you growing up, it’s also about what kinds of things you surround yourself with right now.  This is why support groups are helpful for people struggling with addictions.  Support groups take people out of the environment where the drug use is the norm, and put them in an environment where the norm is to try to be healthy.

If you’re wondering why you feel sad, cynical, and angry take time to examine what is going on around you.  Are you working at a job whose environment is poisonous?  Do you watch media that paints a bleak picture of the world?  Is the music you listen to full of despair?  Do your friends communicate with honesty & compassion, or with sarcasm and disingenuously?

It’s not enough to decide that you want to start acting differently.  It’s not even enough to uncover what shaped you growing up, though that is an essential first step.  If you want to make a change in yourself, you have to change what surrounds you.

April 4, 2016Permalink

Observing Yourself

In Compassionate Communication there are five major skills.  One of them is called “observation”.  At first, I thought this skill was all about noticing and talking about what you literally see.  So instead of “this room is a mess” saying “I see a couple of dirty dishes on the table, and a bunch of books all over the couch”.

But the skill of “observation” also goes much deeper than this.  The skill of “observation” also means observing yourself.  What thoughts are you having?  What stories about this situation are you telling yourself?  What are you actually experiencing in your interior world?

Observing ourselves is difficult sometimes.  I’ll share a story about losing my own ability to observe myself.

Back when I was in college I was dating a woman who went to a different college about 4 hours away from me.  One day I saw that she had an AOL Instant Message (AIM) away message up that said something suggestive about a cute librarian.  And I really lost it.  It’s hard to discern what I was thinking or feeling in that moment because I was just gone.  I was sending text message after text message, calling and leaving messages.  I was just lost in a sea of jealousy and anger.  I was probably telling myself stories like “she doesn’t love me” or “I can’t believe she is cheating on me”, but I really can’t say for certain what was going through my head.  I was a whirlwind of reactivity.

I’m sure everyone reading this knows that it ended up being a pretty harmless, innocent away message.  Nothing was happening between her and this librarian.  She thought the away message was funny, but she was not amused by my 10-15 texts and two Voicemails.  And I was mortified when I could see that my reaction was way out of proportion to what was going on.

Do you know moments in your life where your reaction is way out of proportion to what is actually going on?

In those moments we need this skill of being able to observe ourselves.  If I could have stepped back and watched what I was thinking, telling myself, and doing my reaction would have been totally different.  I would have been able to see the irrational story that I was telling myself, and how untrue it was.  I could have seen that my behavior was intense.

So we need to be able to observe ourselves.  And this is a skill, which means it can be strengthened over time and with practice.  So I want to close with some exercises to help you build the skill of observing yourself:

  • Noticing Thoughts & Stories:  This is a meditation where you engage in something, but then you observe and notice all the thoughts, feelings, stories, and needs that arise in you.  So you might watch a TV Show, or a political speech, or read a poem, or go for a run.  And while you do this activity you just notice your thoughts, feelings, stories, and needs.  As you’re engaged in whatever activity keep asking yourself “what I am I thinking now?”  “What story am I making up about this thing?”  “What feelings do I have in this moment?
  • Who Do You Think You Are:  This is an exercise where you take an inventory of all the things you think you are.  So write at the top of the paper “Who I think I am…” and then just write for 5 minutes all the things you think you are.  And just notice what comes up in response to that prompt.  Don’t judge, evaluate, or critique whatever comes up, just notice it and write it down.
  • Observe Memories:  In this exercise you need to bring to mind an experience you had similar to the one I shared.  An experience where you lost yourself in the moment, you weren’t able to observe what you were thinking or doing.  Try to relive that moment in your imagination.  Where are you located?  What do your surroundings look like?  Who is there?  What are they saying and doing?  Play the memory through like a movie.  And as you play it through try to just notice what thoughts, feelings, stories, and needs are coming up in you in this moment as you relive that moment.
March 20, 2016Permalink

The Limits of Communication…And What You Can Do About Them

Some people come to my workshops, and say:  “Hey, this stuff is great, but doesn’t this stuff only work as long as the other person is also willing to communicate with compassion and honesty?”

And my answer is always something like: “Yeah…sorta.  But even if the other person doesn’t want to engage in honest and compassionate dialogue, these tools can still help you in that situation.”

First, I am going to explain the limits of communication.  The first big one is:  People can always hear whatever they want to hear.  You’ve probably experienced this.  You try to deliver some criticism to your partner, child, or parent in the gentlest way you can.  And then the person shoots back at you “Oh, you mean I’m no good at x.”  That’s not what you said, but it is what they heard.

The second limitation is:  other people have free will.  Other people can choose to act and respond in whatever way they want!   Someone can choose to communicate with malice and abusively.  Someone can choose to not listen, shout their own opinion, and then storm out of the conversation (literally or figuratively) when they don’t hear what they want to hear.  People have free will, and sometime people exercise that freedom in ways that really irritate us.

Finally, the third biggest limitation to compassionate communication:  it’s almost impossible to use when you are triggered to a fight-flight-freeze reaction.  Like every other animal, when we are overloaded with stress we get triggered to some sort of fight, flight, or freeze reaction.  And once we’re triggered, all these communication tools go right out the window.  The reason is that to use these skills of honesty and compassion we have to be in our rational mind.  But the rational mind is shut down during a triggered state.  So we physiologically cannot access the parts of our brain where compassionate communication is stored.

So those are some big limitations.  And right now I’m feeling a little scared that I’ve scared away all my readers by laying those limitations out so clearly.  But now the second part of my answer: “these tools can still help you out in these situations.”

For the first limitation, if you notice that someone isn’t hearing what you’re actually saying then it means they aren’t present with you, and that they’re probably triggered about something.  So I’d recommend empathizing with them.  Remember, empathy isn’t the same thing as agreeing.  Empathizing is merely listening with warmth, presence, and acceptance of who they are and how they see the world.  So if you can listen in a way that shows you care, that brings you into connection with the other person, then you are both going to be in the present moment.  And once you’re both in the present moment, you have a greater chance that the other person can actually hear what you are saying.

For the second limitation, remember that everyone is responsible for their own feelings, needs, and behavior.  So if the other person wants to choose to act in a mean, aggressive manner, and you know you’ve communicated with honesty and compassion, then this other person’s reaction has really nothing to do with you, it is really all about them.  You are not responsible for their experience, and you do not need to internalize their attacks and abusive language.

For the last limitation, you’ll need to cool off alone before you can reengage your compassionate communication skills with this other person.  And the best way I know how to calm down is self-empathy.  Connecting with your own feelings and needs can help you release tension, discharge heavy emotions, and become more connected to yourself.  Self-empathy helps you cool off so you can better reach out to the other person with compassion.

Finally, remember that compassionate communication doesn’t promise that you will always get your way, or that all conflicts from here on out will go smoothly.  They won’t.  Compassionate communication merely offers a different way for you to engage in conflict.  And if you engage in conflict, and all aspects of conflict including the limitations, with honesty and compassion a new process will be born.

February 21, 2016Permalink
Free Practice Group

Twice a month I lead a free Compassionate Communication Practice Group. Open to those new and advanced students. We meet on the First and Third Monday of the month at 6 pm. We gather at 640 Hawthorn Lane in classroom 8. Classrooms are behind the church and to the left, next to the parking lot. Practice Group sessions usually run for 2 hours.

The next one will be on July 6th at 6 pm.