Having a Difficult Conversation Without Engaging in Emotional Warfare – Part I
Somehow, it happened again. You and your loved one begin what seems to be a discussion, and suddenly you are both transported into an alternative universe of yelling, anger, hurt feelings and tears. Someone tripped the wire of an emotional land mine and set off a fire storm of words, memories, and damage. Such events can often serve as triggers for using (or other unhealthy behaviors) or can result from the psychological drain that comes with fighting against cravings and urges.
So how do we enter into what we know is likely to be a conflict and prevent such a result? It seems logical to think that if such devastation can occur over a seemingly benign event, then talking about difficult things will lead to an outcome even more devastating. Better to just avoid it, we think. But avoiding the difficult conversations only results in becoming farther apart emotionally, more disconnected, and more alone, which is not beneficial for recovery. Knowing some important principles about how we make sense of emotional information, and having a more accurate sense of our self can make difficult conversations possible and even allow increased closeness.
So what is happening in these difficult moments? Once emotions begin to escalate, our ability to think reasonably, to take another’s perspective, or to expand our problem solving options all constricts. Emotions begin to snowball and pretty soon, our connection collapses under a cloud of debris (some of it ancient remnants from past destructive interactions). The result is that neither person feels heard, understood or validated.
Being able to share thoughts and emotions without becoming reactive is the goal of a healthy interaction. One method I use to help families communicate more effectively is to structure the conversation. I coach family members to begin with thinking individually and planning what they want to say before initiating a conversation. Two things are needed: a non-judgmental, accepting and validating stance(this influence HOW the interaction will go) and a specific pattern of what to say (this guides WHAT will be said).
HOW: Non-judgmental, accepting, validating
1) Non-judgmental. Focusing your on observations of what has happened, without categorizing things as “good” or “bad” is difficult to do. The consequence of any particular action may be more or less beneficial, but rarely is it truly “good” or “bad”. When we evaluate or judge the others words, attitudes or actions, we are making interpretations about the meaning that influence our response. We tend to maintain certain “lenses” through which we interpret others. For example, if I believe a person to be trustworthy, I evaluate their lack of information about why they didn’t answer my texts as just coincidence. But if I believe them to be untrustworthy, even the best explanation might leave me suspicious. A preconceived expectation about how a person will respond or what they intend can quickly send us into an intense emotion, particularly when the meaning is not positive. Two things I coach clients to focus on eliminating: assigning motives and blame (in healthy relationships, we take responsibility for our own motives and share responsibility for outcomes so blame is unnecessary). Letting go of the tendency to assign a motive or blame to the other person is extremely challenging, but very helpful because it lessens the emotional intensity of your own communication. Resisting the urge to label your own feelings about it as good or bad also helps avoid either righteous indignation, or hiding your true thoughts and feelings from the other.
2) Accepting Taking on the mindset that you are sharing information that is important to share in a good relationship, rather than expecting a certain outcome from the interaction allows you to accept whatever happens, rather than holding on to a hidden agenda. Thinking consciously about how you can accept what the person communicates to you, rather than approving or disapproving, also lessens the need for defensiveness. One of the most difficult things for us in close relationships is really being known. There can be a great deal of fear of rejection when we see that the other person is pointing out something we were hoping to hide about ourselves, or even something we may not want to even admit is present. Giving lots of acceptance to yourself and the other person encourages open communication. In healthy relationships, we can each have differing thoughts, feelings, and perceptions and still accept what the other is experiencing without having to change it. In unhealthy relationships, the anxiety that is produced from having differences can motivate us to try and either force the other to think and feel the same way or to give in and change what we think and feel to be together or without conflict.
3) Validation. Giving validation means that you are willing to see what you or the other thinks or feels as something that likely makes sense, given all the context of their situation. I can have a completely different point of view and still validate their feelings. A lot of family members find it relieving to know that they can work to understand another’s feelings without having to approve of or agree with those feelings. Genuine curiosity helps to promote validation.
These three mindsets help maintain a flexible, open approach to the interaction without losing your self or what is important to you.
CALL TO ACTION: Set aside some time to journal about the relationship with the person you have difficulty communicating. How do you feel about them when things are going well and when they are not? Is there anything that you finding it hard to accept about the relationship? Are there any expectations you have of how they relate to you or of the outcome of conversations? What are some challenges you may have with validating their perceptions and feelings? Any fears? Any standards you might be wishing they met? Is there any outcome you could let go of in order to be more present in the relationship as it is?