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How to Communicate Effectively When You Are Upset

February 26, 2011 1 comment

Couples often have difficulty communicating effectively with one another when there is a problem.   All too often, you get anger or defensiveness in response to telling your partner that you are unhappy with something that he/she is doing.  Rather than receive sympathy or an apology, you have to endure resentment, withdrawal, or combat.

So how can you be true to the intensity of your emotion but not start a fight with your partner?  Or, more importantly, how can you articulate to your partner what is really bothering you and increase the likelihood that he/she will WANT to make things better?

There are four steps to effective communication that can help you achieve this goal.  (These steps are also used in what is commonly known as “NVC” or non-violent communication.)  They are:

1) Make a Neutral Observation

2) Describe Your Vulnerable Feelings

3) Articulate Your Relationship Needs

4) Make a Specific Request

Making a Neutral Observation – Describe to your partner her annoying/infuriating/ outrageous behavior by making a neutral observation.  For instance, rather than stating accusingly:  “You’re late!”  say “You promised me that you would be home at 6:30 p.m. and it is now 9:15 p.m.”  or “You didn’t call me to say  you would be home two hours later than originally promised.”

Describing your partner’s frustrating behavior in a relatively non-judgmental fashion creates the foundation for her to hear your concerns non-defensively.  This also increases the chances that she will continue in the conversation with the desire to make you feel better.  There are some cultures (and relationships) where explosive interactions will not unravel the bonds of affection.  But more often than not, erupting with anger or unleashing criticism is likely to elicit defensive emotions and cause your partner to get angry in return or to withdraw (depending on your partner’s MO).  Think of this as simple cause and effect embedded in our DNA – unbridled anger or caustic criticism creates a “fight or flight” response.  The gentler the initial foray, the more gentle the reaction will be.

Describing Your Feelings –  Take a moment to figure out and then express your vulnerable (non-angry) emotions.  What is the fundamental need not being met by your partner and how do you feel about that?  For instance, beneath the anger in the example above there might be feelings of sadness (e.g., the missed opportunity of intimacy to have dinner together), lack of support (e.g., shouldering child rearing responsibilities by yourself), powerlessness (e.g., not being able to pursue your own plans because you are dependent on someone else who is unreliable), or abandonment (e.g., if this person cared about me, she would be on time).

To help you clarify your underlying emotions beneath the anger, try saying out loud the narrative running in your head about your partner’s behavior.  Our emotions are often dictated by our interpretations of others’ actions, so it can be helpful to figure out that story.  For instance: “You are coming home two hours late because you don’t want to spend time with me.  I feel really sad about that” or “When you don’t call me to tell me you’ll be late, I think it must be because you don’t value my time.  Wow, I feel really disrespected.”  Not only does sharing your story help you to gain emotional clarity, but it also allows your partner to correct an interpretation of her behavior that wasn’t commensurate with her intentions (e.g., “I really wanted to be here with you tonight and have time alone with you, but I got caught in gridlock traffic.  I didn’t call you because I was too worried about disappointing you.”)

Delving down to the vulnerable emotions can be difficult, particularly when your wound is fresh.  I tell couples I counsel that they need to hone their internal dialogue before they can improve the external communication.  In other words, if you want to increase the chances that your partner will remain productively engaged with you and your complaints, you need to try to plumb the depths of your emotions for the vulnerable feeling at the center of your maelstrom.  This means digging deep beneath your anger to understand why your partner’s behavior is triggering you so negatively.

Articulating Your Needs – State what you generally need or want from the relationship.  This helps contextualize your anger.  For instance, “I need to know that you respect my time” or “It is important to me that we have quality, alone time each week” or “I look forward to dinner with you every night.”

Your partner will definitely see that you are upset, but may not understand why you feel so strongly.  Articulating your needs begins to shift the focus from your disappointment (which is often difficult for the listener to contain – particularly when the disappointment is with him) to the common ground of where your partner can meet you.  By stating your needs, you are opening the door to rapprochement and a hopeful resolution to the argument because you are signaling “This is what I need and, if I can get it, I will be happy.”

Making a Request – State with specificity what it is that your partner can do right now in order to alleviate your intense emotions.  For instance, you might request an apology.  Or you might say “Let’s sit down now with our calendars and plan when we are going to have a night out together.”  Or even “I want you to tell me what time we can sit down tonight so I can tell you how upset this makes me.”  (This last request can be useful in a situation where your partner feels ambushed and needs time to collect herself.)

Making a specific request is a very important step in resolving conflict.  It is often difficult for your partner to hear that you are unhappy.  Even if you have successfully identified a vulnerable emotion, it is natural for the listener to interpret your unhappiness as “You are dissatisfied with me!”  And there is a natural tendency for the listener to be alarmed by the threat to the couple’s intimacy which obstructs her ability to be available and empathize with your pain.

The trick to effective communication when having a difficult conversation is to state your emotions clearly while concurrently opening the door to your partner for continued intimacy.  When there has been a fight, your partner often needs help seeing how to rebuild the bridge back across the chasm of your silence, pain, or anger. This is where the request comes in.  The request signifies to your partner the path to continued intimacy – a path of immediate action that will help ease your pain. Making the request is the blueprint for re-engagement.  It signifies the hope and possibility that you two can continue to be a couple and satisfy each other’s needs.



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Categories: Couples, Family Therapy

Take Care of Your Child by Taking Care of Yourself

January 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Raising children is hard. It is a labor of love that demands 24/7 care and energy. And in this age of geographically mobile professionals, we are often far away from the family support that generations of parents relied on. Our “village” has been replaced by paid care and busy playdate schedules. Even when all runs smoothly, it can be a demanding, frustrating, and exhausting role in parallel to its being so rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful.

So whether you are a working or stay-at-home parent, have one children or many, a lot of family support or little, I have one important message to you – take care of yourself! Find the time to re-energize. Find the time to devote to yourself to the little hobbies or activities that give you pleasure, and to the friends and family that sustain you. Your children need a parent who is a happy and healthy caretaker.

This has become a cliché, but it is true that it is more important to insure that the time you spend with your children has quality rather than quantity. A stressed out, tired, annoyed parent is not going to be able to give a child the love that he/she deserves. A parent who does not take care of him/herself won’t be present, receptive, and enthusiastic about the time spent with his/her child. Frequent, negative interactions, because you often lose patience, snap, or get angry with your child, are far more detrimental to your child than him/her missing you for a few hours.

When couples see me for counseling, invariably they have allowed date nights and alone time to fall by the wayside. They have tacitly resigned themselves to their roles of “business partners” whose primary purpose is to raise their children. Working and managing domestic logistics become all-consuming.

These parents, before children, were able to devote love and attention to one another, and nurture their personal interests and hobbies. But now it seems insurmountable, or too much trouble, to take advantage of the free time available to them. As a result, they get burnt out and feel unattended to by their partners. A sense of alienation, resentment, and arguments can ensue. This dynamic does not go unnoticed by children and can be very damaging to their well-being. Children are dependent on their parents. They need to know that everything is all right in their parents’ world in order to feel that everything is OK in their world.

So try to find a balance between all your many obligations and your duty to take care of yourself. Give yourself license to take the time you need to re-energize. Indulge a few hours a week in the activities that give you joy. Go on dates with your partner. Take mini-vacations by yourself. Find pockets of time to nurture your body, mind, and spirit. You deserve it. And your children need it.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy

How to Be Your Child’s Emotional Coach

November 30, 2010 2 comments

There is a lot written about how to discipline one’s child. How to get them to listen. How to get them to do their homework. How to get them to help around the house.  How to get them to stop teasing or whacking their little siblings.

But there is not a lot written about how to coach your children to evolve into emotional beings.  How to help your child become aware of her emotions. How to provide the space for your child to feel deeply.  And how to help him be comfortable articulating those feelings to others.

Infants and young children can usually exhibit their feelings in an uncensored manner. But soon, social forces teach children to keep their emotions in check.  Public displays of intense feeling subject them to ridicule, disregard, or admonishments to keep quiet.

One of parents’ most important jobs is to create a safe container into which your child can pour out all of her unexpressed anger, sadness, and frustration. To be that one place where your child can take off society’s repressive lid and let his feelings boil over into the patient, understanding, and sympathetic embrace of someone who loves him.

Think how much better your life would have been if you and your parents had been able to talk about emotions in an intimate, transparent and positive way?  You have the ability to create that dynamic for your child. This is so important.

Forging an emotional bond with your child is infinitely more helpful than finding her a therapist.  Therapists provide a safe space where their clients can figure out what they are feeling (as opposed to just thinking), acknowledge the emotions out loud, and feel them deeply. You, the parent, by becoming your child’s emotional coach, have the capacity to be the best therapist in the world because you can facilitate such an interaction every day between your child and the person he wants to talk to the most – you!

So how exactly do you become your child’s emotional coach? This may seem like a daunting project because sometimes it can be difficult to pull thoughts and feelings out of our children:

Parent’s Question: “How was school?”  Child’s Answer: “OK.”

Question: “How did it feel when Bobby teased you?”  Answer: “I dunno.”

Question: “Would you like to tell me about your boyfriend.”  Answer: “Gross! Leave me alone!”

The good news is that emotional coaching is fairly simple and can be boiled down to two simple steps.  First, whenever your child talks about something with any energy (e.g., anger, sadness, frustration), be curious. Second, validate their emotions by reflecting back to them what you have heard them say.

The heart of being a good listener is to embrace the notion of being curious. Like a therapist, try not to have a specific agenda.  Ask lots of open-ended question – namely, “how, what, and why” questions that elicit answers longer than a “yes” or “no”.  Keep your child talking and give him/her your full attention.

Simple, right? The rub is that it is often difficult for parents to remain in an empathic, neutral space when the child is exhibiting negative emotions. You are likely to be triggered.  You may want to figure out how to make your child’s distress to go away (“No one wants to play with me!”). Or you may get defensive because your child is complaining about something you do (“You’re not fair!”).  Or you may worry that her attitude is detrimental to her future well-being (“School is stupid!”).

It can be difficult to hear your child’s pain, anger, or criticism. Stay relaxed. Keep breathing. Listen for vulnerable emotions behind anger and frustration. Resist the impulse to go into problem solving mode or to defend your actions or convince your child out of his feelings. Look for grains of truth in what is being said and try to understand the issue from your child’s point of view.

Why is listening so important?

First, your child will feel really seen and understood when you ask them questions about events that are important to them.  This is a profound reminder to them that they exist and that you care.

Second, think of this dynamic as exercising your child’s emotional muscles.  By asking a lot of curious, open-ended questions, you are exploring with your child his inner world.   You are training him to discover and work through his emotions (“What happened?”  “Easy, I remember that!” “Why did that bother me?”  “Hmm…let me explore that feeling…”  “What would have made me feel better?”  “OK, I’m thinking about what I need…”). This is why we call this emotional coaching. Your child needs to acquire this skill for her healthy development.  And your role is essential because emotional intelligence it is not taught at school.  We can end up with advanced degrees without ever acquiring an iota of emotional wisdom.

Lastly, when you “get it,” reflect back to your child what they just told you (from their point of view).  Show them that you understand them.  This will give your child the sense that she is fundamentally seen and understood by the most important person in her life – you!

And what about reacting to what you have heard?  Sometimes your child needs your advice.  Sometimes your child needs discipline.  And sometimes your child has the wrong idea about something important.

My best advice is to separate your need to respond to the content of your child’s words from the opportunity to elicit the emotional import.  Don’t mix the two.  Save your response for later.  Let your child have the experience of being heard (if only for 15 minutes). A parent’s verbal assurances (“You know you can tell me anything.”) will not be as convincing as a child’s experience of good listening.  Let your child know that you are always there to listen and to understand.  Let your child experience a safe place for them to pour out their emotions.

Emotional coaching necessitates time and patience.  So, when your child talks about anything with any emotional energy behind it, find the time and the right attitude to listen, and remember the mantra – be curious, be curious, be curious.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy

Couples Therapy Lesson 3: Asking Your Partner the “Magic Question”

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

It is important that you and your partner know how to recover well from a fight.  Do you feel safe to stop being angry or defensive or withdrawn?  Do you trust each other to make up?  Can you risk being vulnerable again?

Small children tend to recover from fights well.  My young son, for instance, on the heels of a temper tantrum, states plainly “I need love!” when he is no longer angry and wants affection.  It never fails to elicit a positive response.

Children, whose needs are consistently met, are able to move confidently between anger and their desire to reconnect.  Why?  Because our DNA ingrains in parents a nurturing response to children’s vulnerable pleas.  We are quick to forgive even the most hurtful comments (“I hate you!” or “Go live in another house!”) when our children reapproach us with vulnerability.

But the angry partner who holds a grudge, pouts, withdraws, or simmers will not be met with such sympathy.  His behavior will likely elicit a ‘fight or flight’ response when it appears unsafe to make up.  And it is difficult to reconnect with your partner when you feel that you are warily circling each other as combatants rather than intimates.

Finding a vulnerable space is key to making up with your partner after an argument. You need to create a dynamic which sees past and forgives your partner’s adult, aggressive behaviors, and uncovers the wounded child crying out in pain.  This allows you to tap into your ingrained, nurturing instincts and reconnect.

Knowing your partner’s inner wounded child can be very helpful in this process.  If you have engaged in the exercise outlined in my previous blog entry, you should have a sense of your partner’s most sensitive issues.  This information (and compassion) can guide you in asking what I call the “Magic Question.”

The Magic Question is a gesture indicating that you want to put down the boxing gloves.  It shows that you care about your partner’s wounded child needs.  It is a verbal bridge going to the very core of your partner’s childhood experience and coming back to heal what is paining them in the present.

For instance, if your partner had parents who were dismissive of her every need, she will likely get very triggered when she is feeling unsupported.  Of if your partner had parents who were very critical, he will likely resent feeling judged.  If these two were in a relationship and fighting, the woman, whose needs were never attended to, might have a tendency to get enraged or shut down in the face of an unsympathetic response, while he, who constantly feels criticized, might get angry or withdrawn in the face of her vocal (or what he what he interprets as) silent condemnation.   The argument, that starts off on a concrete issue (e.g. someone late, some chore not finished, or some request unheeded), spins out of control because these sensitive buttons are being pushed.   The content of the fight (the actual words being spoken) are not addressing the core issues.

The Magic Question allows the couple to extricate itself from this whirlpool and hone in on the acute problem fueling their negative responses.  The Magic Question is formulated as follows:  “What can I do right now so that you will feel ____?”  The blank should be filled in with what you know is most important to your partner.  For instance, “What can I do right now so that you will feel supported/empathized with/that your needs are being listened to?” would be ways to formulate the Magic Question to the woman above.  “What can I do right now so that I can state what is bothering me without you feeling judged/criticized/like nothing you do is ever good enough?” would be good questions for the man.

When I work with couples, natural responses to the above might follow in the vein of (for the woman): “Just spend ten minutes listening to me without reacting.”  “Repeat what I have said so that I know that you have heard me.”  “Tell me that my concerns are important and legitimate (even if you disagree on their solution).”  Or responses from the man: “Tell me three things that you are pleased I did before criticizing my behavior.”  “Tell me that you still care for me, even though you are unhappy with this particular thing.” “Please comment on my actions and not on my character.”

One problem that I see again and again in my practice is that couples are not attuned to taking care of each other’s sensitive, core issues.  When dating, they often coo over each other like mother hens – anticipating needs, making romantic gestures, and showing infinite patience.  These behaviors reassure the other that, like a loved child, they will be taken care of.  But as the relationship progresses, these behaviors fade into the distance.  And when a fight is brewing, they hyperspace into a distant galaxy.  Suddenly, this person, with whom you are supposed to be so intimate, feels like a stranger or an antagonist.  And the relationship feels very unsafe. Reconciliation seems so difficult.

But if you can ask the Magic Question, you are making an important gesture to your partner.  You are conveying that you want to soothe the inner child, to reassure him that he will continue to be taken care, and to convince her that she will be safe.   And if you can deliver on the request made in response, you have opened the door to changing the argument’s whole dynamic, creating emotional empathy, and forging reconciliation.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy
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