8 Tools for Transforming Relationships
While facilitating family intensives at Evoke Therapy Programs, I ask each family member what they would like to gain from the 4-day workshop. They almost always say the same thing. They want to walk away with tools for a new way of communicating. While I know that not all of our relationship problems can be solved with communication tools, I find that there are some simple skills, which, if followed, begin to change the way we think and relate to others.
George Orwell once observed, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” If we follow this logic, we understand that sometimes what we do changes what we think and feel. I have witnessed families improve their compassion, develop healthier boundaries, and gain great insight into their relationships by utilizing some simple communication tools. What follows here are my 8 Tools for Effective Communication.
The first one is simple but not always easy. Change “you-statements” to “I-statements.” This includes, I feel, I think, I believe, I want, I need and also includes phrases like “for me…” and “In my experience…” The change does not rob us of our ability to set boundaries, rather boundaries come from healthy self-care rather than trying to change the “Other.” The change is from “Your behavior is a problem and needs to be addressed.” to “I cannot live with this in my life. I need something different.”
When we share using the collective “you,” it makes our sharing impersonal. From “You know when your kid doesn't do what he’s asked, it really tries your patience.” to “When my kid doesn't do what he’s asked, I have a hard time being patient.” It requires us to be vulnerable because it asks us to share our relative truth instead of arguing for the objective. The good news is that how we feel or what we think is not up for debate, but our statements of fact can be argued ad nauseam. Another benefit when we talk about how we feel and think rather than the other person is that shifting from “you” to “I” tends to decrease the likelihood that the other person will feel attacked and become defensive. When we shift from “you” to “I” we tend to share our experiences rather than trying to convince someone or sell them on an idea. It can help us get clearer with our boundaries and avoid the unconscious controlling energy that often plagues relationships.
2. Reflective listening
Perhaps the communication skill that requires the most practice is reflective listening. I have heard this called deep listening, as it is the practice of concentrating on the other person’s truth. With this there is very little thought except a deep desire to understand and hear the other. Often we are triggered or formulating a retort while the Other is talking. We may be holding judgments, though we don't think of them this way. We experience these thoughts as our knowing what is wrong with the other person or what brand of crazy has led them to come to their conclusions. Sometimes when we respond with “Why” questions we think we are trying to understand but in many cases, our “Why” is just veiled judgment. “Why did you do that?” might really mean, “I think what you did is crazy!”
Some refer to this tool as active listening since one of the ways to listen is to repeat back or paraphrase what we have heard so that we ensure that we have heard the other. This reflection may also contribute to the other person’s experience of being heard. And if we mis-hear them, they can correct our reflection until we are able to repeat back what we have heard. Judgments, sarcasm, and criticisms will be revealed in our tone or by the words we choose to emphasize. Not only will this alert the other person of our attitude towards them and what they have expressed, but it can be an effective way of us checking ourselves.
In The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz suggests “taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me.’ …Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves." Reflective listening is most difficult when someone is expressing hurt or anger about us. Yet, in reality, what someone thinks or feels is not about us. It is about them—always. It can inform us enough to ask ourselves questions, but we do not have to take it on and let it direct us. This skill asks us to know and like ourselves well enough that if what it shared is true then we can own it and if what is shared is less than true, we can see it as merely the expression of the Other’s truth. Some call this healthy detachment, but I call it healthy attachment. Lastly, others often are better able to move through their emotions (or have their emotions move though them) when the other person is able to hear and sit with it.
3. Ask the intention of the other/or state your intention when you share
I don't see this skill employed very often when people are exchanging feelings and thoughts with each other. Yet, if it was to be used it could clear up a lot of things that lead to conflict and often-repeated arguments. After the other person expresses something, whether it is assertive or not, ask them their intention. “What would you like from me?” You can do this after you reflect back what you heard or it can stand alone as a response. If the other person is honest, this question can lead to greater awareness, and themes of control or guilting can be replaced with assertive requests and healthy boundary keeping. If things are escalated, you may need to take a time-out until both of you are in a space to be honest and vulnerable. For me, this skill is powerful when I am on the receiving end because it asks me to bring my content (what I say) and my metacommunication (what I mean) into integrity. So much of our conflict and difficulty in relationships persist because what we are saying is not what is really going on inside of us. This is because authenticity is more vulnerable. So we can see here again that the use of a tool may actually facilitate the development of a stronger sense of self.
Stating your intentions and desires upfront is one way of being proactive. “I am going to share something with you and I just want you to listen. Can you do that?” It asks me to set my intention and name them, preventing me from using communication to hurt others, to guilt them, or to passively get them to change so I feel better. Another wonderful benefit when I state my intention before I share is that others are clear what I am doing and are less likely to be triggered by their instinct to fix, solve, rescue, or debate.
4. Avoid imperatives
Imperatives in this context are “have to”, “should”, “need to”, “ought to”, “must, “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, or “evil”. The wonderful thing about avoiding these phrases is that what we use to replace these will almost always be “I-feel”, “I-think”, or “I-believe”. When we talk about our experiences and the conclusions we have arrived at from them, we become more assertive and less controlling. Instead of telling someone “the way it is” we learn to share our experience and that kind of exchange is usually much more welcomed by others. When families I work with follow this skill, they become more thoughtful and intentional in their communication. Power-struggles often disappear and themes of guilt and shame dissipate. For many, they are not even aware of how much they use imperatives so working with a therapist or letter writing (where the evidence is in black and white on paper) can help here.
5. Avoid polarizations
Avoiding black and white thinking as well as language such as all or nothing, and either/or is a powerful way to improve communication and relationships. We often gravitate towards these exaggerated polarizations to avoid feeling vulnerable. Instead of owning our feelings and risking that others aren’t going to accept our feelings, we exaggerate to emphasize the validity of the strong emotion we are feeling. And like all of these skills, when we change what we say, we may often change what we feel. For instance, changing from “you never listen” to “I don’t feel understood by you right now” will drastically change the intensity and improve the likelihood of being heard by others.
6. Steer away from advice-giving
This is counterintuitive as many see their role in relationships (especially parenting) as a teacher. Yet, many master teachers often use questions followed by stories as their way of teaching. In A.A. or Al-anon, the format is for participants to share their experiences, strength, and hope. Advice or “cross-talk” is strongly forbidden in these meetings and yet many report acquiring an incredible amount of wisdom from attending. As I have often noted, my therapist has never given me advice. That is because therapy is not somewhere where expert advice is dispensed, but rather a safe place to go to explore and discover one’s truth. The times I ask for advice, my therapist guides me to discover my own wisdom and to claim my own resources. She may respond with something like “if you want X, you might try Z.” This is a very different tone than most advice-giving I hear. Much of it is self-righteous and less than compassionate. It tends to trigger defenses in the Other in many cases since there is an underlying judgment unconsciously communicated. In the least, ask the other if they want or are open to advice and share it in the form of “what I have found to work for me in similar cases...”
Lecturing, teaching, nagging, repeating yourself, and preaching are all subcategories of advice. I joke with parents when I talk about this by pointing out, “your children heard all your lectures. I hear them give them to their peers all the time.” Sometimes I even ask parents to share a problem, unresolved, that mirrors their child’s struggle. In MANY cases, children will respond with a mini-lecture for the parents. In this they are accessing their inner resources that are lost and manifesting in their current struggles. Most of us would do well if we decreased our communication when it comes in these forms. And the Others in our life will be grateful for it—and more apt to ask for it and listen. As the Dali Llama said, “To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.”
7. Compassion towards self and others
If we can’t view the Other compassionately, we need to do something to improve our ability. We need to go take care of ourselves in some way so that we can approach the Other with what Thich Nhat Hanh calls a “Dear One” attitude. This attitude is wonderful because it requires us to own our incapacity to provide others with patience, love, and non-judgment. No matter what we say, if we do not (read cannot) approach others with this sense of compassion we will have difficulty connecting and encouraging them.
We cannot chase away ignorance, hatred, or woundedness with hate. The only way to encourage others out of their symptoms (which are really the voice of their wounds) is with love. And to fully embrace this kind of compassion, we must include ourselves. Hanh encourages us to look at our depression or anxiety as we would a little child. Hold it close and attend to it in order that we might heal. Much of our suffering, our defensiveness, our conflicts, and our symptomology are born out of our lack of self-compassion. That is because our lack of compassion towards others and ourselves is very deeply rooted in unconscious processes of our unique childhoods. It exists because as children we were taught that what we did (when it was thought to be wrong or unacceptable) was something to be angry with or disgusted by. This is because this is how our parents responded to it. The reaction from our parents led us in many cases to hide parts of ourselves instead of understanding ourselves. This process led to unfelt, unexpressed parts of ourselves which eventually arise as our mental health symptoms or addictions. Of all the tips on this list, this is one that may be the hardest to master. It will be a practice and even our difficultly with it is ideally met by our patience and compassion.
Although this is one of the most frequently taught skills in conflict resolution training, it is one that people have a hard time doing. First, they don't know they need it until it is too late. By the time they know they need it, they are so escalated that their willingness to use any skill is minimal. So why don't they recognize it earlier? The answer is that it feels vulnerable or weak to ask for, let alone, need a time-out. We want to think we are stronger, more patient. We have difficulty admitting we lack some capacity that would require us to step away. However, if we lack the required bandwidth for others, we would do best to take some time for self-care in order that we can return with all that is required of us. I have also come to realize this truism: when we think the other person needs a time out, it is likely us who could benefit from the time out.
Our ability to connect, listen, and speak honestly and compassionately will be restored when we are less agitated. Our agitation or anxiety cuts us off from our higher-level functioning. We are in the flight or fight mentality, in a place where we feel threatened, and in that place, we literally don't make a connection with the higher regions of the brain that provide rational thought. From there we do not do our best thinking nor do we make our best decisions.
Although many of these tips come from my observations in working with children and parents associated with Evoke Wilderness Therapy Programs, so much of the process applies to all our relationships. The renowned child psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs said it this way, “The proper way of training children is identical with the proper way of treating fellow human beings.”
The above tools are about changing our sensibility. It is a lifelong project of changing the way we are in the world. From my book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent I describe the transformation as changing the question from “What do I do?” to these series of questions, to be answered in order: Who am I? Who is my child? and What is my relationship with their problems? To better understand what it will take to on our journey, consider the following exercise. Think of an ideal response or interaction based on the principles and tools above. Then, after identifying the ideal, compare it to how you did or are inclined to respond. The space in-between the ideal and our natural response shows us where our work is.