How Clogged is the Filter You are Communicating Through?

“Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.” –Obi-Wan Kenobi

Merriam Webster defines communication as, “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.”  It sounds so simple, yet miscommunication is one of the biggest issues with which many people struggle.  When we communicate it is not just the words that are spoken.  There is a whole other level of communication that is shared with the tone, inflection and body language of each person.  Then there are our own thoughts and opinions about the person, the situation and our beliefs about ourselves.  When we talk with another person, it is filtered through all of our own ‘stuff.’ When a co-worker I trust and respect says that I did a ‘great job’ on a project, I may appreciate the compliment, but if a co-worker I don’t trust says the exact same thing my mind may start to imagine all kinds of scenarios in which they are against me in some way.  My ‘stuff’ influences how I react to the same words.

Our minds are wonderful at deduction.  Many times, it serves us well.  We get a few clues and we are able to piece together meaning and fill in the blanks so the story makes sense.  Unfortunately, we also fill in the blanks with incorrect information from time to time.  We assume we know the intent of the other person and what they meant by what was said.  When I envision us as people, I see our ego as being a filter that surrounds us.  As we get information it passes through our ego.  When our filter is clear, we are able to objectively look at the facts of a situation.  The more clogged the filter, the more we include our own judgements and assumptions.  Miscommunication happens when we fail to explore how the debris on our ego filter may have distorted our view of the situation.  Take a step back the next time you find yourself in a situation where miscommunication is occurring.  Ask yourself what the facts of the situation are and begin to reflect on any debris that may be distorting the facts.  The more clogged the filter, the harder this will be to do, so start with little issues first.  The more we recognize our own debris, the more we are able to remove it and begin to clear our ego filters.  That will improve communication.

The Wisdom of Virginia Satir

“Communication is to relationships what breath is to life.” –Virginia Satir

As I have studied various counseling theories, there is one that stands out as my favorite.  That is the work of Virginia Satir, which is profound in its simplicity.  When she looked at families, she knew that each member of the family was longing for love and acceptance from each other.  Her goal was to validate each member and to help them see where the breakdown in communication was occurring.  One of the ways she did this was by identifying the roles each family member played and how it affected the way they saw themselves and the world.  She identified three necessary parts to healthy interaction; the self, others and context.  When these three positions are balanced, there is congruent communication.  When one or more of these three positions are denied, distorted or eliminated, defensiveness and stress occur in the communication.

When someone sacrifices themselves in a situation to put the needs of others and the context of the situation first, they became what she called a placater.  Placaters will put their own needs aside and will often say ‘yes’ when they really want to say ‘no.’  They will do whatever is necessary for others to be happy and will sacrifice as much of themselves as needed to please others, often out of fear of being rejected.

A blamer, on the other hand, has no problem sacrificing others in order to maintain their sense of self and the context.  They put the responsibility completely on other people when something goes wrong.  They will often say things like, “What’s the matter with you…” or “I can’t believe you…”

The super reasonable person is like a computer.  They sacrifice the self and others to only focus on the context of the situation.  They tend to take a detached stance and will focus on principle and what is ‘right’ instead of on people’s feelings or emotions.  They will often use the word ‘it’ to communicate, such as, “It is important to…” or “It doesn’t matter.”

The irrelevant communication stance doesn’t address the self, others nor the context.  This is someone who can’t tolerate discomfort in a conversation and will immediately change the subject and talk about something else.  They seem to hope that their distractions will avoid the hurt, pain or stress.

While we all take on aspects of these styles from time to time, by objectively looking at these communication stances, it is easy to see how defensiveness arises and clear communication breaks down.  When the self, others and the context are all taken into account, issues can be addressed head on.  There is compassion for the other and respect for the self to address the context of the situation.  What roles have you been falling into and what would change if all three aspects were balanced in congruent communication?

Is Your Relationship Filled with Landmines?

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” — Rollo May

Communication is key to a successful relationship.  Being able to talk openly and honestly with our partner leads to a healthy relationship.  Yet, as I work with couples I have noticed that many of them have certain issues that tend to get avoided.  When the conversation gets close to that certain issue they will often change the subject and begin to get uncomfortable.  These are what I refer to as the landmines in a relationship.  There is a real fear that if the topic is brought up it will blow up into an argument, so many couples avoid the area completely.  While having one or two landmines in a relationship are usually easy to avoid, as more are created there become fewer and fewer safe topics to discuss and the relationship becomes threatened.

Where do the landmines come from?  Sometimes partners can describe exactly how the landmine was planted.  They will tell of a big argument or fight they got into, which was never resolved.  Anytime the issue was brought up to get resolved it blew up bigger, so eventually, to save the relationship, the subject got avoided completely.  Other couples have landmines on areas of past trauma that they are unable to talk about.  The couple knows the landmine is there because it accidently gets detonated when something reminds them of the trauma, but for the most part it gets sidestepped.  Other couples are completely unaware of landmine areas until they step on one and are surprised by the reaction.

If you recognize having a landmine in your relationship, what do you do?  First of all, it is important to acknowledge in a factual way that there is a topic which is getting avoided.  This is an observation and not a judgement towards your partner.  Once the topic is acknowledged, become curious about it.  What is it activating in me?  What are the fears or concerns that lead to that reaction?  What would I need to hear or experience to be less reactive?  Being able to talk about the landmine is the start of the deactivation process.  If even gently touching on this area leads to a detonation, it may be helpful to seek professional counseling to support you in the deactivation process.  Landmines are based on beliefs that lie under the surface, so bringing them up and becoming curious is how they begin to lose their power.  Each time a landmine gets triggered, it is an opportunity to do some healing when it is dealt with in a healthy manner.  Fear keeps them buried, but having the courage to bring up the landmine areas is what strengthens a relationship.  What landmines have you been avoiding?

Don’t Take It Personally—Really, Don’t! 5 Tips to Let It Go

“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.” Don Miguel Ruiz

The other day I was working with a client and he commented that the people around town are so rude.  He went on to tell me a list of examples why, such as, people don’t smile at him or even say ‘hi’ when he walks by.  He concluded that everyone was ignorant and judging him.  I explored with him the story he was telling himself about the other people and then asked him why he cared so much about what these people thought about him.  After a while, he discussed other times in his life when he felt like he didn’t belong.  As mammals, we are social creatures.  We have an innate desire to belong and to be accepted.  When we feel like we are being outcast it is extremely painful.

All of us have our own filter, through which we interpret the world.  Our brains are amazing tools.  They take in information and store it.  These memories can serve us well, but they also color the way we see the world.  There have been studies which show that when we have a history of trauma, even neutral events can become charged with emotion.  Our brains become sensitized to pick up on the slightest cue that there is danger.  Other people may say that we are overreacting to a situation, but to our brain, which is remembering the past event and working overtime to protect us, it isn’t an overreaction at all.

If you find yourself taking comments personally, here are five tips:

  1. Take a step back from the situation.  In the moment, when we feel we are being personally attacked, our brains flood with fight or flight chemicals and the rational thinking part of our brain shuts down.  There is no way to have a rational conversation when someone is triggered, so take a break and allow the thinking part to re-engage.  Go for a walk, take some calming breaths or listen to music.
  2. Once the brain has calmed down, become curious. What was the story that I was just telling myself about that situation.  Write it down, so that you can objectively read back what you just wrote or say it out loud.  It always amazes me how things sound so right in my head, but as soon as I speak the words out loud I can hear the absurdity of them.
  3. Ask yourself if the story that you just wrote or said aloud is true. Often our personal interpretation gets added in, when there may be no real evidence of what we are telling ourselves.  What are the facts in the situation and what is a personal opinion that is being shared?  When someone says something to us that feels like an attack, separate out the evidence from the beliefs.  We all have our own preferences.  Some people will like what I do, others won’t.  We can’t please everyone and that is okay!
  4. Remember that you have bad days, too. Give the other person some grace.  We don’t know what the other person is going through.  When I get cut off in traffic, I make up a story about the other person.  Maybe they are rushing to get to the hospital.  When I picture what they may be going through, I can shift from anger to compassion for them.
  5. Have the courage to speak up. Often our thoughts about someone’s words or actions are not what their intention was.  Is a friend really ignoring us when they don’t answer our message or are they just busy?  I know that I will often read a text and while I intend to return it later, I forget.  But, if someone doesn’t return my message, I tell the story that they are disrespectful for not giving me an answer.   Ask clarifying questions if someone says something or does something that felt personal.  It is not easy to clear the air, but it is healthy.

When we take something personally it is the story we are telling ourselves about the situation that gets to us.  Other people have their own stories they are telling.  When we take responsibility and own our stories, we are able to shift the way we see things and they become much less personal.  As Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  What have you taken personally that may need to be re-examined?

Getting Onboard the Relation-ship!

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” –Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Working with couples is always interesting.  Two unique individuals cannot spend a significant amount of time together without bumping into each other from time to time.   There are bound to be disagreements or arguments, but how they are dealt with can make the difference between a healthy relationship and a rocky one.  One of the things I often see is that the partners are sailing in two different directions.  When couples are stuck, it is because they are not able to communicate clearly the destination that they are working towards.  The relation-ship becomes divided and mutiny abounds.   Whether it is because they have not clearly decided on the ship’s destination or that they have envisioned different docks without communicating where they are going, trouble looms when all hands are not on deck.  By the time they come to my office, some partners have already boarded the lifeboat and are ready to set sail in their own direction.  In order to work out disagreements, both partners need to get on board the ship and decide the direction it is heading.  When they agree on the port, it becomes much easier to steer the ship and navigate through rough waters.

In order for couples to get onboard a unified relation-ship they need a clear vision of what their goals are.  Do they want to save for a house in the country or rent a condo in the city?  Do they want to have a large family or only pets?  Do they want to take vacations to Europe or go camping in an RV for the summer?  When couples share common goals the destination is set and they can help each other navigate when they start to drift off course.  Having a common destination does not mean that each partner can’t take their own excursions.  It is critical for each partner to have their own hobbies, friends and interests, but they return to their home base, together.  One partner’s excursion is no more important than the partner’s.  In a family, everyone’s needs are equally important and no one sacrifices their own needs for the other.  Needs can be negotiated and compromised, but there is always give and take in order to provide balance.  When everyone is on board and working together, it is smooth sailing and you can reach the destination with much less stress.  Take a moment to assess the crew on your current relation-ship.  Is the navigation on course?   If not, take some time to re-assess and verify that you are both heading for the same destination.

If you love someone suffering from addiction, here are five things you need to know

“People who have never had an addiction don’t understand how hard it can be.” –Payne Stewart

Working in a methadone clinic over the past several years has given me a unique perspective on addiction.  I have been privileged to hear heartbreaking stories of addiction and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects it has on the entire family.  Loving someone struggling with addiction is perhaps one of the hardest things there is to do.  The person that you once loved seems to be replaced by a foreign entity.  It is hard to know who you are talking to.  The addiction masquerades as the loved one and it is unbearable to discover that the person you once knew is unreachable.  So, what do you do if you love someone who is suffering from addiction?

First, know that the person in addiction is not the person you love.  I always think of us as having different parts that take over in different situations.  There are loving and gentle parts, as well as angry and demanding parts.  There is a different part of me in control when I’m at work then when I’m at home with my children.  When someone is struggling with addiction, it is the addict part that has taken control and seals off the other parts.  Sometimes we can get glimpses of the real person, but during active addiction it is difficult to know if you are talking to the addict part or breaking through to your loved one.  Be cautious and discerning when talking to your loved one.  Remember that the lies and manipulative behaviors are the addict part which has taken control and are not behaviors the person you love would do.

Second, know that the person you love did not intend to become addicted.  There is not a single client that I have worked with that told me they wanted to become addicted to heroin.  Of course, they made an initial choice to try it, but once the addiction took hold, they lost all power to choose.  This is why addiction is considered a disease.  The urge and compulsion to use is so strong that the choice to stop is blocked.  Know that if addiction were just a matter of willpower, there would be far fewer people suffering.  It takes support and understanding to break through addiction.  It is complex and there are no easy answers or solutions.

Third, understand that the person in addiction is suffering, too.  Addiction creates a downward spiral.  There is usually a point when the person in addiction decides that they want to stop.  They tell themselves that they are going to stop, but the compulsion becomes so strong that they can’t control it.  After they use they feel guilty about it and the pain becomes stronger.  The stronger the pain, the stronger the compulsion to use.  The spiral continues until they hit the preverbal ‘rock bottom’ and seek help or treatment of some kind.

Fourth, don’t give up.  Loving someone struggling with addiction is painful.  There is no denying that, but when the person hits their ‘rock bottom’ they need love and support in order to heal.  Set extremely firm boundaries.  Enabling and making excuses for the person in addiction does not help them.  They need to experience the consequences of their behavior choices.  This is extremely difficult to accept because death is a very real possible consequence.  Setting boundaries does not mean withholding love and support from them.  Trust has to be earned back.  It is a slow process, but don’t give up on them!  Get family counseling to help the entire family heal and open the lines of communication back up.

Finally, take care of yourself.  Loving someone with an addiction is consuming and feels helpless.  You cannot stop or control a loved one’s addiction.  The person in addiction is the only one who has that power.  The more worn down you become, the less helpful it is for everyone.  Find your own hobbies, attend Al-Anon meetings, spend time in nature or laugh with friends.  It is not selfish to take care of your own needs.  By practicing your own self-care, you are able to help the family heal and move through the recovery process.  Your family deserves the best you can give, which only comes when you take care of yourself.

The journey of addiction is never easy.  It is a dark chapter for many families, but it doesn’t have to be the whole book.  You, as a family, get to write the rest of the story.  It can have a happy ending.

5 ways to improve communication in your relationship

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” –Peter Drucker

Last week I discussed blocks to communication.  This week we will explore five ways to open the lines of communication.

  1. The first key to effective communication is curiosity. As I discussed last week, our partner is like an iceberg.  We are not able to see the thoughts, emotions and memories which lie underneath the waterline.  What is hidden influences the behaviors and actions that we are able to see.  When we become curious about our partner’s actions and behaviors we can gain insight into what has been hidden.  Curiosity is not interrogation, nor is it making excuses for behaviors.  Genuine curiosity is getting to know and understand things about each other which deepens the relationship and connection.
  2. The second key is active listening. What often looks like listening is actually just waiting to talk.  Active listening is focusing on what your partner is saying and verifying that what you heard was the message your partner was sending.  Pay attention to what is going on in your head while your partner is talking.  If you are making a mental list of things that you want to say when they stop talking, then you are not truly listening.
  3. The third way to improve communication is to talk positively with your partner. In John Gottman’s research he found that in happy and healthy relationships there was at least a five to one ratio of positive to negative communication.  This means for every one criticism there need to be at least five positive things said.  While nobody is usually counting the positive and negative comments they are making throughout the day, it is something to take notice to.  When the ‘Four Horsemen’ are in a relationship regularly, the ratio of positive to negative is often much less than 5:1.  Let your partner know you appreciate them and build up the positives.
  4. The fourth key is to monitor your own reaction. If what your partner is saying is upsetting, be aware of what is going on emotionally inside.  When we become emotionally triggered we switch from responsive to reactive.  In reactive mode, we become defensive and critical of the other person.  Effective communication is not possible when in a reactive mindset.  When we are responsive we are able to look at a situation with more objectivity and come up with better solutions.  If you find yourself becoming reactive, ask for a break to calm down and make sure to come back to the conversation when you are able to respond effectively.
  5. The final key is honesty. In a relationship, there are often ‘white lies’ that turn into bigger issues.  If you truly love your partner it is crucial to be honest.  This is more difficult than it sounds, because many times we are not even honest with ourselves.  We tend to minimize or deny that things bother us, when deep down they do.  When we are honest with ourselves and are then honest with our partner, issues can be discussed before they fester into big resentments.

While all relationships have their moments of conflict, effective communication is one of the most important ways to address and deal with issues.  Taking time to improve communication is one of the best ways to improve happiness.

What blocks effective communication in a relationship?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw

If you ask couples what they could improve in their relationship, the most common answer would probably be communication.  Many of us seem to struggle from time to time with being able to express ourselves clearly and to understand our partners.  When I work with couples, one of the analogies I often use is that of an iceberg.  I explain that they can only see the very tip of their partner’s iceberg.  Above the water is the behaviors and actions that they can see.  Under the water is where the majority of the iceberg is hidden.  These are the memories, thoughts and emotions that our partner holds.  At the waterline is where communication lies.  Communication is the bridge between what a person is experiencing internally and how they express it externally.  When there is limited communication, partners are left to guess at what the other is feeling based on the behaviors and actions that are witnessed.  Unfortunately, many of the assumptions that we make about our partner, based on what we see, are simply not accurate.

What makes it so difficult for us to communicate effectively?  These are the two most common reasons I have seen:

The first is an assumption that one partner already knows how the other is feeling.  In my work with couples, I often hear partners say that the other should know how they are feeling.  While we clearly know how we are feeling, I think we often forget that others aren’t experiencing situations in the same way that we are.  Just because a situation makes us angry or excited, I think we often expect everyone else to feel the same way, so we don’t bother to talk about it.  Along with this is a tendency to express our emotions one time and then to expect the partner to know it.  I often hear this when partners complain about not being told that they are appreciated or loved.  The conversation sounds like, “Why don’t you ever tell me that you appreciate what I do?”  Which gets responded to with, “I do, I told you that time when you…”

The other reason is a fear of being vulnerable.  When we express our thoughts, emotions, embarrassments and shames, there is a risk that our partner will reject or criticize us.  Many of us have had experiences where we shared something personal and were vulnerable with another person, only to be betrayed by them.  That experience often results in a hardening to protect ourselves from going through that experience again.  The problem is, the brick wall we build so that we don’t get hurt also stops love from penetrating fully.  The fear of sharing vulnerable emotions is met with frustration and anger which often adds bricks to the wall instead of knocking them down.  It is frustrating for both partners when there is a breakdown in communication.

Communication is critical in every healthy relationship.  Next week I will discuss some ways to improve communication.

How to deal with stonewalling in a relationship

“The course of true love never did run smooth.” –William Shakespeare

This week we will look at the last of Dr. John Gottman’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ stonewalling.  Of the four horsemen, this is the most infuriating for most people to deal with.  Stonewalling is when one of the partners simply shuts down and refuses to engage with their partner.   For the partner trying to connect, the stonewalling reaction creates a sense of fear, anger or despair.  It is as if they have lost their partner.  Gottman has found that approximately 85% of the stonewallers in his research were males.  One of the interesting things he found with stonewalling is that when he talked to the people who were doing the stonewalling, their intent was simply to not to make things worse.  Many explained that they stayed quiet thinking that it would help the situation and their partner would calm down easier if they stopped responding.   

As humans, we are social creatures.  We are wired for connection.  In studies with infants, when a caregiver stops responding and simply stares at the baby, the baby becomes distressed.  Our body physically responds to the distress and we go into reactionary mode.  The antidote that Dr. Gottman recommends is to notify your partner that you need some time away and to then find something relaxing and enjoyable to do for at least 30 minutes.  This self-soothing is critical to calming our central nervous system and reactivating our mental ability to think and reason.  In one of Dr. Gottman’s studies he actually had couples get into an argument and when the partners were highly reactive he pretended that there was an issue with the equipment.  He instructed the couples not to talk until they got the equipment fixed.  They allowed the partners to get a drink or snack and read magazines during this time.  When they resumed, the couples were able to focus on the problem and come to a solution quickly.  He noted that time away, especially with stonewalling is critical for successful resolution of problems.

If these four horsemen sound all too familiar in your relationship, it does not mean that all is lost.  Becoming aware of the patterns and giving them a name is the first step to resolving them.  Help each other notice when the horsemen are in play and soon they will visit less often.

What is the antidote for defensiveness?

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” –Stephen Covey

Defensiveness is a normal human reaction.  We all get defensive from time to time when we feel that we are under attack.  While it is normal to feel defensive, in a relationship it often becomes an unhealthy pattern of behavior.  Defensiveness is the third of John Gottman’s  ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.’ Take the following exchange for example, “We’re always late!  Why can’t you ever be on time for anything?” Which gets a reply of, “What do you mean I’m always late?  You are the one who can never leave on time!”  From this point the conversation goes downhill.  I envision defensiveness as a shield that gets raised whenever we feel that our partner’s words are like daggers.  We then load our own arsenal and begin firing back.  In defensive mode, it is all about self-protection and in order to protect our self we need to blame our partner or make them wrong in some way.  It becomes a war of words, in which there is no winner.

So, how do you get out of the battle of defensiveness and put down the weapons? Dr. Gottman’s antidote for defensiveness is responsibility.  Taking responsibility disarms our partner.  In the previous example of being late, if the partner had responded with taking responsibility it may have sounded like, “You are right, I was not paying attention to the time and I realize that I need to be more aware of what needs to be done before we leave next time.”  It sounds easy to take responsibility, but it is not natural.  Often, we don’t feel that it is our fault.  We truly believe that the problem lies solely in our partner.  It takes a good deal of self-awareness in order to take responsibility.    One of my favorite scriptures from the Bible is Matthew 7:3 which asks, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”  It is much easier for us to see the faults of others then it is to take responsibility for our own shortcomings.  For us to grow, we need to become curious about ourselves.  When our partner fires a complaint at us, becoming curious instead of defensive can stop the battle.  By taking a moment to reflect on the partner’s complaint and exploring it with genuine curiosity, we are often able to find something that we can take true responsibility for.  This is completely different from the martyr saying, ‘Just blame me, it is always my fault.’  Martyrdom is just another form of defensiveness.  Taking responsibility is truly listening to what your partner is saying and becoming curious about what can be done to resolve the problem.  How different would your relationship feel with both partners taking responsibility?

Next week I will explore the last of the four horsemen, Stonewalling.