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For Both Partners: Be open to learning. Regardless of which role you’re playing, both partners need to come to this exercise with a willingness to: make mistakes, learn something new, give and receive feedback, and take responsibility for their own words and actions. It’s okay to say, “That question makes me uncomfortable.” It’s not okay to say, “You’re a jerk for asking it.”
Let go of being right. In order for this exercise to work, both of you need to decide that you really do care more about healing your relationship than you do about being right. As someone once said: If you want to be right all time, live alone.
Assume best. Most people are basically good. So when good people act badly, it usually means there’s something going on inside of them that feels pretty awful. Assuming best doesn’t mean letting your partner abuse you. It just means trying to understand what hurt or fear might be driving someone you love to act in hurtful ways. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Pay close attention to your feelings. If you’re unsure about what you’re feeling, tune in to cues from your body. Notice when a question or comment generates strong feelings, negative or positive. Tension, nervous laughter, a desire to flee, flushing, all these tell you something. A smile, excitement, tears, sighing, all these tell you something. As soon as you notice any strong feelings, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Stop for a second, I’m feeling something.” This should be taken as a cue to S-L-O-W down. It means something is shifting. Something worth understanding is happening. Let yourself be curious, and these new sensations will take you someplace new.
Don’t hammer your partner. Now that you have your partner’s undivided attention, use your time well. If you’re Partner B, don’t ask loaded questions that demean your partner. “Example: “Don’t you think you’d feel better if you weren’t so fat?” And if you’re Partner A, describe a problem once. Don’t repeat a point you’ve already made. Example: “You did same thing yesterday with kids . . . and what about on our honeymoon? You did same thing then, too.” When in doubt, try more compassion. Whenever communication starts to break down, take a break and ask yourself: What vulnerability is beneath all this anger, frustration, defensiveness, or blame? Then say to your partner: “This is starting to feel really hard. What can I do right now to help?”
If it feels right to both of you, it’s okay to switch midstream. Sometimes a conversation gets stuck because either Person A wants to know what Person B is thinking, or Person B can’t continue until he’s had a chance to say what’s on his mind. As long as Person A is all right with decision, it’s fine to switch. Just make sure you eventually go back to where Person A left off, so she doesn’t get permanently sidetracked.
Practice! Once you’ve succeeded in doing this exercise with neutral subjects, try more difficult ones. The more you practice, better you’ll get. The sooner you learn to admit your part in what went wrong in any given interaction, sooner you’ll find this process rewarding, and better your relationship will feel.
Sample Questions and Tips for Partner B: Here are some things you might ask or say to Partner A. Use them to help you get started, help you get un-stuck, help you go deeper, or get you out of trouble if things start breaking down. Other than first two questions, you can use questions in any order. Some can be asked several times during a session. And feel free to come up with your own: •Before we start, let me make sure I understand. You want to talk about ____. Is that right? •Have I missed anything important? •What can I do to make it easier for you to talk to me about this issue? (Examples: Don’t rush, don’t interrupt, don’t try to fix, etc.) •Do you know what you’d like from me? (Understanding? Help? Compliance? Agreement?) •Do you need me to feel same way you do about this issue, or would it be enough for me to understand how you feel? •What would it look like if you were getting what you need from me? (Get specifics here so you’re sure you know what your partner wants.) •You look ____ (sad, closed off, angry, distracted, etc.), what are you feeling? (This combination--guessing what your partner’s feeling, followed by a direct question---is a good one to use whenever you sense a shift in mood from your partner. It’s a way to make sure you understand, and it gives your partner a chance to tune into feelings she/he may or may not have noticed.) •Do you know why this issue is on your mind right now? Did something happen, or is there an upcoming event? •Does it have anything to do with ____ ? •Is there something I’m doing that makes you feel bad? •Does it help when I ____? •If you were a four-year old, how would you express how you’re feeling? •Here’s how I’d describe situation using a metaphor____. Does this feel accurate to you, or do you have a better one? (Example: You feel like I’m a freight train that’s moving too fast and you’re afraid to jump off or get on.”) •What would you like me to be doing differently? •I remember when you____. Did that feel similar to how you’re feeling now? •Would it help if I did ____ ? •If I did that, how would it make you feel about us? •I’m not sure I understand exactly . Could you say more about____? •Is there more? Are there other things related to this issue, which are hard for you? •Is it possible that there is some fear beneath your anger or frustration about this issue? (Common fears: being rejected, losing control, being abandoned, failing, being broke, never being loved or understood, dying, and ending up like a relative that is unwell, cruel, or chemically dependent.) •What’s worst, or hardest part of this for you? •Have you tried anything that’s worked in past? •What have you tried that hasn’t worked? •If I could do one thing to help you right now, what would it be? •If I did that one thing, what would you take my actions to mean? (Example: I care. I’ve heard you. I’m trying.) •Is it possible that part of what’s going on might be related to _____? (This question only works if your partner is feeling understood. If not, your question may sound like a judgment.) •I’m trying to understand, but I’m feeling attacked. Could you tell me what you don’t like without sounding so harsh? For example, I’m fine with you saying: “I didn’t like it when you talked to everyone but me at dinner.” That’s easier for me to hear than when you say: “You were such an arrogant jerk.”
Note to Person B: If your partner says something that’s inaccurate or accusatory, don’t correct them or defend yourself. If you do, your partner will feel defensive and will either launch a counterattack, or shut down. Instead, say: “I understand you felt/feel X (hurt, sad, mad, frustrated, disappointed, etc.) when Y happened. (If you stay away from defending yourself now, chances are your partner will be willing to hear your side of story later.)
Copyright 2004, Betsy Sansby
Betsy Sansby is a licensed marriage & family therapist. She is the creator of an ingenious communication tool for couples called: The Ouchkit: Marriage Counseling in a Box. You can read her relationship advice column “Ask Betsy” at: www.theouchkit.com.