Updated: Apr 15, 2020
A Guide to Effective & Connecting Dialogue in Stressful Times.
We are all experiencing a great deal of stress, grief, worry, and holding a ton of uncertainty right now. It is more difficult than ever to get a hold on what we are feeling, put it in perspective and set realistic expectations for ourselves and other people. I hope this essay might offer some support, relief, and guidance on best practices to communicate in a caring and connecting way and reduce taking these undigested emotions out on loved ones. Notice, i said "reduce" because the fact is, we are not perfect and will most assuredly slip and do the exact thing we are trying to work on. Remember... attention and effort, not perfection.
Before we talk about the “How To” of communication, we need to talk about what not to do. The Gottman Institute refers to the pesky, reactive and unhelpful behaviors that we unconsciously use to protect ourselves in moments when we are triggered as “The Four Horseman” as in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (eep!). I think we can all agree that something with such a scary title is the LAST thing you need while we are all collectively trying to hold on to all the hope we can.
Let's just remove the doom and gloom analogies for now and just put it plainly that these are the communication styles that research shows slowly chip away at and wreck your relationships. In fact, they lead to break-up, cut-off, and divorce. They are communicated through words, facial expressions, and body language. However, all information is good information and it may be that you are in a relationship where your partner/family member/friend exhibits all the Four Horseman and the break-up of your relationship/friendship/family situation is just what you need to assert your boundaries, re-establish self-worth and agency and take care of yourself. It might be more like a “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child scenario than “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell situation.
Regardless, in this relationship or the next, take responsibility for your feelings and what you want. Avoid the following pitfalls in communicating and embrace some of the antidotes that get you more of the understanding, connectedness, and appreciation that you want and need in this relationship. As the saying goes, If you want change, you need to be the change. The only thing you have control over is you.
Here’s a video produced by the Gottman Institute that gives you some examples of what these negative responses look like.
Let's break this all down.
#1 Criticism. A criticism is when you insult someone’s character. You are not angry at a specific behavior, you are attacking the core of someone’s character. This type of communication does not help get your message through, it does the opposite. It leads to hurt and rejection and pushes the other person away.
Example of criticism: "You never take anyone’s needs into account but your own. You didn’t just forget to tell me where you were going. ..It just doesn’t register for you that my feelings are important. "
Example of a complaint: "I felt worried and anxious when you took off without telling me where you were going. This is a time when tensions are high for me and it makes a big difference to know where you are. In the future, all I am asking is that you check in with me so i know you are safe."
#2 Contempt. The nastiest one of all. It is one of the worst ways of communicating and is the biggest predictor of relationship dissolution and disaster. This is a step further than criticism and assumes a moral superiority over the other person. It involves mocking, berating, sarcasm, mimicking and using body language like eye-rolling and scoffing. It makes the other person feel worthless and insignificant. Research even shows that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious diseases (colds, the flu, etc.) due to weakened immune systems. This way of speaking down to someone on a consistent basis is quite literally life-threatening.
Example: "You want to take off and go visit your friends (scoffs, mocking laugh)? Are you kidding me? If you were not so completely emotionally inept, you would see that you are clueless when it comes to taking care of anyone but yourself."
That example is the extreme side of the spectrum of contempt, but contempt can appear in more subtle forms. Someone interrogating you for "allowing yourself to be a victim" is also a form of contempt or telling you "I know you are not any good at understanding finances and your head is in the clouds but..." and proceed to tell you how it is shows contempt. Any incident where someone is asserting their moral or intellectual superiority over you is where the buzzer goes off and you know you are encountering contempt.
#3 Defensiveness. The product of receiving criticism is often defensiveness. You put your back up, deny or project unwanted feelings on to another person to get someone to back off and leave you alone. It communicates no accountability or responsibility for mistakes and feels like the tables are being turned to make the person that lodged the complaint the problem and completely denies their experience.
Example: Your partner asks you.. "Did you remember that we have a phone call with some friends tonight to connect?
Defensive response: "You know I am stressed out and I barely have time to breathe. Why did you rope me into this? You should know better. "
#4 Stonewalling. This is evasion by shutting off and shutting down. This is when someone withdraws from the interaction and simply stops responding to their partner. Like all of these reactions, it is often relational. Stonewalling can be a response to criticism, contempt or defensiveness. These are the folks that disappear, switch the subject or focus their attention on something entirely unrelated to the topic at hand. The trick is to ask for and take a little breathing room and practice emotional self-soothing (explained below) and return to the conversation when you are less activated.
#1 Gentle Start-up. Use "I" statements not "you" statements. Take responsibility for your feelings and your needs and do not put them on your person. You don't have to put a bunch of sugar on top to get your person to hear you. You just need to speak your truth clearly and without blame, critique or universalizing their behavior. Don't evaluate and don't judge.
Example: "I really need you to check in with me before making decisions for both of us. Please just ask me to have a conversation about it before committing to anything or just speak for yourself."
#2 Build Culture of Appreciation. Are you more responsive to hear someone out and listen to them if you have a long-standing sense that they appreciate you and have your back? That's a rhetorical question. Of course, you do! If you have a foundation of respect and appreciation for your person's good qualities, you can draw upon them in times when you are irritated by them and be a bit more generous. I find the hardest part of my job as a couples & family therapist is when folks have a long-standing history of distrust of one another's motivations that have obscured their ability to see the positive qualities of why they made the choice to be in this relationship. In that case, we need to work 3x harder to cultivate this piece if it hasn't been present for awhile. When people feel heard, understood and appreciated.. they move. When they do not, they go rigid and close themselves off to possibilities and change. Another way to say this is when people constantly hear what they are doing wrong and not what they are doing right, it is easy for entropy and hopelessness to set in. Compliment your person, notice when they are doing something you appreciate and like and say something about it. Be active in appreciating their positive qualities and they will likely do the same for you. You've got to give a little to get a little.
#3. Take responsibility for your actions/Empathize with your partners perspective. In this moment, arguing right or wrong or trying to win is futile. As a friend once said to me, "Do you want to be right or do you want to be in a relationship? " Taking responsibility, admission of fault or just empathizing with your partner’s perspective is the most effective approach.
Example: 'Oh no! I am so sorry, but I forgot about the call we had planned and knew I was running behind on my deadline this morning. This is on me and I'm sorry I didn't say anything until now. If you want to continue the call without me, please do. I am also more than happy to email them and see if we can reschedule."
Example if you haven't done anything wrong per se, but your person is upset:
"I hear you are upset. I really wanted to be on this call too. I mentioned to you this morning I might have to finish this project tonight, but I hear maybe that wasn't so clear. Can we work this out? "
**Remember: You can't argue against someone else's experience, but you can empathize first then offer your experience.
Psychological Self Soothing. You are experiencing the smoke detector part of your brain trying to protect you in that moment. It doesn’t know that it is not serving you. It thinks it's saving you. Stonewalling can be difficult to stop if it is a repetitive behavior. It can also be a survival reaction connected to our personal histories of conflict. For example, say you grew up in an explosive household where people over-reacted to conflict and nothing really ever got addressed, so you may have developed to survival skill of retreating and swallowing your emotions. Perhaps your partner grew up in a household where you had to yell to get someone the hear you and pay attention, so their survival skill is to continue to pursue you to get answers. You see why this may cause an impasse? And why you might feel like stonewalling is your best option.
When our brain gets triggered and overwhelmed, our amygdala (the smoke detector in our brain), is triggered and we may not have access to the words to describe what is happening or be able to come up with a response that serves us. This is what neurologist Daniel Seigel refers to as "Flipping Your Lid". Logic and reason requires the use of our frontal lobe (the part that controls cognitive skills like problem solving, memory, language, or judgment) but you can’t actually get access to its abilities to help you out if the smoke detector in the back part of your brain is telling you to fight, flight or freeze. Your frontal lobe needs safety and then it can come to your assistance.
First approach if you cannot access words and you are simply way too triggered is to walk away. The second response is to name that you are overwhelmed, so your person doesn’t feel like you are abandoning or dropping them and let them know you just need a break or some space. Third response is to do the second response and be clear to your person that you want to return to the conversation when you feel calmer. The trick is, you actually have to return to it. Don’t wait for them to bring it up again later. You take the initiative. Taking the initiative says to your person that you care and you actively want to work it out. If you don't, it continues to communicate that you were just placating them.
If you are the partner, it is advisable to allow the person stonewalling to have their space and not attempt to pursue the conversation further because it will likely only escalate or completely shut down the issue.
I would be remiss if I signed off before telling you that you should not hold yourself to perfection nor should you use this information to establish a competition between you and your person to determine who is the good partner or bad partner. We all have room to learn and develop these skills. Our culture certainly does not teach us how to control our emotions or de-center our experience to understand the other. However, I do believe that continuing to work on these abilities does make your relationship and the world in general a more pleasant and kinder place to live. Owning our mistakes, feeling the hurt, reflecting on them and allowing ourselves to take one step further toward change puts more overall goodness into the world.
"Love and happiness
Something that can make you do wrong, make you do right.'
- Al Green