Thank you to those of you who reached out with questions about integrity in relationships, following the last blog post, "Living With Integrity in 2019."
Many of the follow up questions received were asking specifically how to approach a person in their life, now that they feel more empowered to ask for what they need in a more straightforward way, but feel nervous about how their new strength and assertiveness will be perceived by others. I thought I’d respond with a part two to the Living With Integrity series, entitled "Communicating With Integrity".
First things first:
The information in this post is meant to be more general in nature, and is intended to encourage various shifts in thoughts and perspectives. It is never recommended to take action on making any drastic changes in your relationships without professional consultation, for several reasons. Remember that every situation and relationship is incredibly different. History and unique personal dynamics play a role in how to approach any given situation. Please reach out for information on how to schedule a free phone consultation to see if therapy could help you with your specific needs.
Now, lets get started.
Foundations of Communication
Sometimes I like to simplify the very complex topic of communication, by thinking about it’s core: a combination of three things:
Tone of voice
Think about which part of communication you’re best at sharing in a clear way. What ways do you send mixed messages or messages that may be confusing? What form of communication from this list are you most sensitive to reacting to when it comes the people you’re closest to? Keep this list in mind as you read on.
Communicating With Integrity
Step One: Be honest.
Tell the person you’re miscommunicating with, the TRUTH. If you’ve always handled things one way, and suddenly are asking for someone to change something, or asserting yourself, the person in your life is likely to notice that. Further, there’s a great likelihood of being met with defensiveness when you tell someone you are upset and ask them to change. As humans, this is a HIGHLY vulnerable moment, where the person may feel personally attacked, because to them, in that moment, it is now confirmed, that they have dissatisfied you. Luckily, the way you bring up a topic (think ‘WORDS USED’ from the type of communication list above), can make this process a little easier.
Here are some general ideas of things you can say to preface a conversation when you’ve decided to take a new or stronger stance on a particular issue/ situation:
“I know that what I am about to say may seem different or out of character for me, but I am working on being more honest and open about my needs, and I’m asking for your help.”
“I realize that I have not been bringing up certain things that I have been feeling or need, out of fear that what I say will hurt you, or that you will become defensive. I realize that me shutting down and not talking to you, has only created even more of a distance between us, which is also not working, and frankly isn’t fair to either of us.”
“I don’t think your intention is to hurt me, or make me feel bad,etc., so I wanted to bring it up, so we could iron out any miss communications. I wanted to see if you could listen, and help me clear up any assumptions I have made that have in turn made me feel bad. I don’t want to build resentments toward you. I’d rather open up in an honest and calm way, and have you listen and clarify. Then come up with a plan together of how to handle these situations moving forward.”
Step Two: Do not try to have this conversation in the heat of the moment.
Anger and frustration can often cause the body to react with a fear response. When this happens, the body automatically goes into “freeze” or “fight or flight” mode. Additionally, defensiveness caused by past traumas, can make it utterly impossible to listen to one another. In fact, there is brain research showing that the corpus callosum (connective tissue that allows the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate with one another) actually shuts down when our bodies are engaged in a fear response. This means that when you are responding to anger or fear, there is no ability to truly listen, learn, or absorb the information that you need one another to be intently listening to. This is why it is always recommended to talk to someone you are miscommunicating with, after you take some time to calm down. This allows the brain to actually become available to listen, learn, and retain/store the information you are sharing into short-term and eventually long-term memory.
Pro tip: Any parents out there reading this? The same technique works when it comes to angry communication between you and your children. If you want to communicate important information to them that they learn and use at a later time, it is always best to do so in a calm voice when you and the child(ren) are able to listen and learn. This is also another reason that screaming/spanking/hitting, etc. is not an effective long- term solution to solving behavioral challenges in children- because these also induce fear-based responses (there are obviously exceptions like screaming at someone to avoid danger such as not touching a hot stove, or screaming and grabbing them to avoid a car about to hit them if they wander off the side walk into the street- but you knew that already).
One way that you could consider saying this in the heat of the moment is:
“I really want to hear what you are saying because it is very important to me, but I am still so angry and shocked, that I need 10 minutes to cool off, take a walk outside, get some water, and then I’ll be back and able to really listen.”
Pro tip: Healthy relationships are built on trust. If you need to leave to cool off, ALWAYS let the other person know WHERE you are going, that you WILL be back, and WHEN. This way they don’t feel abandoned when you need them most. As for parents and kids in the heat of the moment? Use the exact same technique! Model to them what healthy communication looks like by letting them know that you care about what they have to say, but that your brain can’t listen fully when you are so angry. Tell them where you are going, that you are taking time to cool off, and when you will be back. Set a timer, so they can learn to trust that you’ll be back. This also holds you accountable to ensuring that you don’t forget to come back to talk it out. They will very likely follow in your footsteps. This is what teaching your children self-regulation skills looks like!
Step Three: Listen actively and mindfully to the other person involved.
As we we all now, it is rare to give someone your full, undivided, uninterrupted attention. In moments when someone is sharing with you their emotions/thoughts/feelings/ideas, it can be very helpful to let the other person know that they are heard. Repeat back the general idea of what you heard them say, and show them that you understand their perspective- EVEN IF YOU DO NOT AGREE.
Pro tip: By acknowledging that you understand someone’s point of view, you ARE NOT saying that you agree with them. You are saying you care, you’re listening, and you are giving them a chance to clarify whether or not you heard them correctly. Once we understand that each person’s perspective is their reality, we can communicate more effectively. This step takes a great deal of PATIENCE, as you can imagine, but the results can have endless positive impacts on your life (ex: personally, professionally, etc.).
Lets use this hypothetical conversation between Mary and Jane as an example:
Mary: "I’m so sad and frustrated with you because for the past 3 months, you have been prioritizing time for work obligations over spending time with me. It makes me feel like you find excuses not to spend quality alone time together. Then when I go out to events without you, you get jealous.”
Jane: (Does not agree with this at all, feels disappointed that she upset Mary, and blind sighted since Mary has not said anything to her about this for months. Instead of becoming defensive, Jane remembers the steps of communicating with integrity). “I’m glad you’re bringing this up because it seems like it’s been bothering you for such a long time. It’s important to me that I understand your perspective. So, what you're saying is, that when I prioritize work, it feels like an excuse not to spend time with you, and that you feel like I get jealous when you end up going to the events without me.” Pro tip: Be as genuine as possible. If these words suggested are completely foreign/do not sound like you, add your personality/vocabulary to communicate this message. Just try to be compassionate, direct, and minimize humor/avoidance.
Mary: “Yes. It’s completely unfair. It’s hard to believe you haven’t noticed this at all. It even makes me question this relationship.”
Jane: “I hear you. I can see how that seems unfair. I don’t want to make you sad. Can I share with you my perspective?”
Mary: “Okay.” (As you saw, Jane did not automatically become defensive and shut down Mary’s feelings. She listened, and showed Mary that she understood her feelings, even though she does not agree. Now Mary is more likely to stay open to hearing Jane’s perspective).
Jane: “I had taken on more work shifts specifically because of the conversation we had 3 months ago where we talked about wanting to be more adventurous as a couple and travel more often. I thought that it was obvious that this was the reason that I have been unavailable, but clearly that was not the case since you have been so upset. Then I was actually feeling resentful when you were going out and spending money with friends without me, since it was my understanding that we were saving for our travels. So it actually was more of this frustration I was feeling, not jealousy.”
The example of the situation above was provided to show that making shifts in our communication style can make it possible to uncover underlying miscommunications or assumptions, in order to provide insight and opportunity for growth in relationships.
What about tips in communicating with the other people I have various relationships with in my life, such as with co-workers, friends, employers, etc? Many of the examples provided may be more relevant to intimate relationships or with family members, rather than communication patterns among co-workers, or between employee/employers. However, some of the same skills may still be applicable, and can be used within these relationship dynamics, too. Difficulties communicating with co-workers, and employers are common reasons that clients come in for therapy, and I would be happy to discuss this further with you over the phone to see if therapy sessions could be of benefit to you in your specific situation.
Remember: Not all relationships have a safe enough dynamic to achieve healthy communication. For example, there are situations where it is not encouraged to continue a relationship if safety is in question (such as various forms of abuse, etc.) Other factors such as significant mental health challenges, substance use/abuse, etc. add specific unique challenges that need to be addressed professionally in order to determine the best plan for your specific needs. Please contact me directly to determine if therapy services could benefit you.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future blog posts, feel free to reach out- I'd love to hear from you!