“The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera” – Yousuf Karsh
We are like photographers, clicking images and impressions of the world, others, and ourselves. We believe that we are objective and virtuous photographers, and we believe that the images that we capture reflect reality.
If our cameras were 100% objective, there should be no misunderstandings or mistaken memories. Despite all evidence to the contrary (how many times have we found we were wrong about a memory or had different but logical interpretations of the same event?), we continue to go through life believing that we understand reality as it is. Perhaps our certainty is some kind of mental and emotional adaptation that prevents us from feeling overwhelmed in the vast complexity of our lives. A useful adaptation, for sure.
However, I also know that the more sure I am, the more likely I am to create problems for myself and others. Honestly, I give a lot of credit to my Ex for living with me as long as he did during a phase of my life when I was so sure about so much. At the time, I was not very open to others’ reality or being wrong in general.
Being open to someone else’s reality – that is, how they interpret the world through their unique lens – is a good start to avoiding misunderstandings. If both parties are open and motivated to understand each other, then perhaps it is sufficient. I have a found, however, that communication skills can transform a relationship. What I don’t mean by communication skills is selecting the right words in the right sequence to describe your interpretation of reality. That is merely the starting point.
Chris and I decided to be very intentional and proactive about communication, especially around sensitive topics. These sensitive topics are where misunderstandings are most likely to occur as our emotions fog and distort the lens of our camera. We went a therapist who specializes in imago relationship therapy, where the foundation is communication skills.
Every week Chris and I commit to some quiet time where we talk about the week’s photographs of our relationship – both the positive and the more difficult aspects. Both will arise over the course of the week, but by being proactive and positive about our communication, we circumvent many problems. But not all of them.
Recently we were discussing a sensitive topic. Because we did not complete the conversation in our intentional conversation-mode, we walked away with a misunderstanding and probably some hurt feelings. The follow-up to that conversation shed a bit of light, but led to yet another misunderstanding. The third conversation revealed to us our common objectives and overlap in desires. So, despite having “graduated” with advanced couples’ communication skills, we had two misunderstandings when discussing a sensitive topic.
What would’ve happened if we weren’t communicating intentionally and proactively? The old Susanna, and the old Chris-Susanna would likely have had a lot of anger, resentment, blaming, and a big fight out of one or both misunderstandings. There may have even been more than two misunderstandings in the old communication mode, and we probably would’ve generated even more during the course of a fight. The irony would be that it would’ve all been unnecessary since we had almost identical goals and desires, but our emotional lenses distorted the message each of us were trying to convey.
The skills we learned are somewhat of a cliché, but they do work if done correctly. It took Chris and me several sessions with the therapist to master this technique, so I don’t recommend you try this at home without some type of coach, book, or resource, and a commitment to honor each of its components (a great book is Crucial Conversations). Taking shortcuts in the process undermines it. The rules are:
- Only one person may speak at a time, and their narrative continues until they have no more to say.
- The speaker phrases their message using sentences starting with “I” instead of “you.”
- After each narrative, the listener says “What I think I heard you say was…” and they summarize what the speaker just said. They end with, “is that right?” The speaker then has the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings that might have occurred. The listener reflects back what they heard in the correction. This is repeated until the message is clearly and accurately heard by the listener.
- Since the listener is reflecting back what they hear, the narratives should be in digestable chunks limited to roughly 3-4 ideas at a time.
- When both parties concur that the listener has understood the message, the listener says, “is there more?” Then the speaker goes to their next narrative chunk and the above is repeated until the speaker has no more to share.
- Speaker/listener change roles and repeat the above.
We practiced these skills over and over. It sounds easy but when you are dealing with emotional issues, it is difficult to avoid defending or blaming. Practice taught us to honor the process and each other’s courage and willingness to participate, and we work through it step by step.
There are two additional critical elements to this process. The first is easy. We begin each of these conversations with appreciations for each other. So each week we convey to each other, using the process, all the things that the other has done the previous week that was appreciated and that made us feel loved. It’s a wonderful, affirming practice, and has become an important and anticipated highlight of our week.
The second element is harder. We are usually communicating at the mind level of the camera, but to be really effective we must go to the heart level. Nancy, our therapist, would ask us to dig deeper into the emotional reasons and background behind our perspectives. This deeper dive is the process where we talk about our fears, needs and desires behind our emotions, values and beliefs. I believe communicating these elements is essential for couples to really understand each other. Though these deeper, emotional elements are often difficult to discuss, the deep discussion also can transform a relationship to where we really see each other clearly, possibly for the first time.
Though I believe most people probably will need a coach to be really good at this, I also think that a person who is sincerely committed to the process can learn and master much of it on their own. Without these tools, during conflict I have often felt like I was powerless to do anything other than fall back into a childish, tantrum-like state. Instead, I think this process has taught me what it is like to finally grow up and start to be an adult around emotional issues.