How To Be A Good Friend: Part 3

We all know the importance of communication in a relationship. When things are going well, good communication keeps things on the right track. When things are going wrong, you need to talk it out.  You just need to communicate more, right?

Yes and no.

When a relationship is having conflict, it’s probably not the amount of communication at issue, but the quality of both the communication itself and the internal world of the participants that is causing trouble. For example, if I think I’m right and you’re wrong, communicating that in greater quantity will not help the relationship.

What comprises quality communication in a relationship? Here are 8 components of quality communication:

  • Being present – You’re not worrying about your kids, your job, or even what you’re going to say next. You’re giving your partner your undivided attention to both their words and nonverbal communication. Being present also means being calm. If I’m pissed off or terrified, I am likely not being present.
  • Listening to understand – When you listen to understand, you’re trying to grasp the meaning of their words, not just the literal, surface content. You’re dispensing with any assumptions you may have made about their perspective or motivation. You listen with a clean slate, hearing between the lines, not taking every phrase literally.
  • No judging – Everyone has a different internal world, none better or worse than another. Respect the other’s reality, and they are more likely to respect yours.
  • Don’t take it personally – If discussing a difficult topic, this issue likely, at its emotional care, has nothing to do with you (see below).
  • Don’t interrupt – Let them completely finish what they have on their mind. You’ll get your turn, hopefully, later.
  • Reflect back – Summarize what you heard (again, without judgment or taking it personally), and ask if you got it right. Receive corrections and edit until it’s right then ask if there is anything else.
  • Go deeper – For intimate relationships and/or conversations, ask your partner to explain why this particular issue is so important to them to get to the painful (or joyous) belief behind their feelings. Try to avoid using the word “Why”: “Help me understand why this is so painful/wonderful for you.” Reflect their response back.
  • Ask – Ask if they’re willing to hear your perspective. If so, then share your viewpoint being as authentic as possible, avoiding blame and judgment on the other. Remember, your interpretation on your view of the world is your choice.  You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember that it is your opinion, not fact.  Share the feelings elicited by your partner’s behavior or words and the pain at the source of those feelings.

For example, I might say to my partner “When I was telling you how excited I was about my promotion, I felt hurt and ignored when you interrupted me and changed the subject. Giving me adequate air time, especially during important moments, helps me feel valued and appreciated.”

The deeper you can authentically go into your wounded, vulnerable place, the more impactful the communication.     In your vulnerability is where it becomes clear what is the real issue, buried deep beneath the surface argument. (Please see any of Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability if you’re unsure the benefit of making yourself vulnerable).

The quality of your internal world is also critically important to good communication. Your internal world is related to the Arbinger Institute’s concept of being in the Box and your mindset. Briefly, when I am in the Box, I am focusing on my own needs, wants and desires and justifying that position by mentally and emotionally diminishing the other to be irrelevant, a problem or a means to an end. When communicating, I’m more concerned about being right, being heard and understood, or not being blamed or criticized.   My mindset is inward, focused on my own needs.

In contrast, when out of the Box, I view others needs, wants and desires as important as my own. I’m communicating to first understand, and then to be understood. I’m deeply interested in the speaker’s needs, wants and desires so as to be helpful to them, or at least, to do them no harm.   I respect their boundaries as well as my own. My mindset is outward, focused on understanding their needs, and trying to help or support them in a way that does not violate my own boundaries.

Given that this is neither easy nor simple, I find it helpful to take a strengths-based approach to communication. I use my Relator to motivate me to deepen my relationships, and I use my Capacity to Love and Be Loved and Consistency/Justice and Perspective to maintain a positive energy during difficult conversations.   A mindfulness practice is essential for staying present. I view improving on this critical skill part of my lifelong journey where I continue to learn and grow, using large doses of Forgiveness when my partner and I fall short of our expectations.

How We Appear To Others

Connections via FaceTime

Connections via FaceTime

Recently, I was talking to Chris on FaceTime and I wasn’t feeling in the best of spirits. I was annoyed and in a pissy mood. I was aware of it but wasn’t at a stage that I wanted to discuss it or where I was able to deal with it to make it go away. So I just thought that I’d put on a cheery face and fake it until I make it.

The connection we had was pretty poor, never helpful for communication even under the best of circumstances and moods. In some kind of cruel, karmic lesson, every word I said came echoing back to me.   Though I felt from my end that I was doing a good job masking my mood, I heard my snippy tone echoing back to me every time I spoke.

I always thought Chris was like a scent hound, picking up parts per million of mood even when I felt I was doing a good job covering it up. I still think he is. But probably equally true is that I’m not as good at that cover up or emotional self-management as I believe myself to be. Then I’m upset or confused when I’m called out on bad behavior when I’m trying so hard to be good.

And so it goes folks. It just doesn’t matter how well you think you’re covering your emotional tracks, your tone, selection of words, body language or energy is going to betray you. Not that you shouldn’t get brownie points for making an effort. Just don’t think you’re getting away with it.

Fortunately for me, I’ve gotten somewhat better over the years at resetting my internal stage. It’s still never as fast or efficient or effective as I’d like it to be, but at least I can do it in a matter of minutes or hours instead of hours and days. If I quit fooling myself into believing I can take a shortcut and fake it so that I can deal with it later, I can actually be more effective at managing my moods in a timeframe that’s helpful.

It’s just like doing my taxes or any other unpleasant task. I’m going to have to do it anyway. I might as well do it right up front instead of creating damage (like incurring late fees or additional paperwork) and fall out, which then gets added to that unpleasant task.

So here’s to a tiny bit less denial about my emotional management and hopes that I can do better the next time. And the time after that. We’re works in progress, after all. That effort to progress is the work that really matters.

A New Definition of Love

What if we’ve been thinking about love too narrowly?   What if love can actually be obtained anywhere and from almost anybody?

OK, I guess we could argue about semantics and our definitions of love.    But at least one definition of love by positive psychology researcher Barbara Frederickson, in her book Love 2.0, shows us how we can increase our capacity for and availability of love whenever we want.   Her definition of love has to do with positivity resonance (PR).  PR occurs between two people when they form a connection.  That connection consists of eye contact or touch, and a shared positive emotion.  When that connection occurs, then our brain waves and hormone release aligns with the other, thus reinforcing the connection and the resonance.  Generally, a feeling of safety is a prerequisite for PR to occur.

Let’s assume for now that this definition of love is a reasonable working hypothesis.  Therefore, love of this nature is available and abundant all around us.  These connections are available from strangers, acquaintances and loved ones alike.  We just simply need to make the time (a moment or two) and the effort to form a connection with someone else.    Have you ever saw something amusing, and happened to catch a stranger’s eye just as they noticed the same thing?  Have you ever made eye contact with a stranger in passing and caught a glimpse of their humanity in that second or two you contained their gaze?  How many times has a moment of mutual affection or admiration passed between you and a colleague or classmate?  These are all examples of PR with people we “don’t love” according to traditional definitions.  If we wish to increase the love in our lives, we can easily cultivate this kind of love throughout our day.

PR occurs the same way with loved ones as strangers, but there is an added level of safety, trust, and history with a loved one.  The PR intensity and frequency will be elevated with loved ones.  We can also cultivate PR with our loved ones by intentionally improving PR.  For example, shared or mirrored movements (such as dancing or other synchronous activity) improves PR, as does constructive positive communication and expressions of appreciation.  So, explore something new, mirror your loved one’s body language, respond enthusiastically and positively to your partner’s good news, and express your appreciation for each other.   Want to improve your ability to positively resonate?  Practice a little loving-kindness meditation every day.  This exercise has been shown to increase the tone of the vagal nerve and the amount of positive emotion in one’s life.

Even if you don’t buy this definition of love, PR is worth doing.  The more positive emotion and/or PR you experience, the broader your awareness and creativity, the better your health and IQ, the better your access to your wisdom, and the more resilient you will be.  The recipient of your PR will also enjoy these improved qualities, so what better way to pay it forward?

The Baseline of Misunderstanding

We see the world through our lens

We see the world through our lens

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:

  1.  Only one person may speak at a time, and their narrative continues until they have no more to say.
  2. The speaker phrases their message using sentences starting with “I” instead of “you.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Formula for Influence and Persuasion

I love psychological formulas as they describe what seems indescribable.  And one of the qualities that seems beyond quantification is influence and persuasion.  But maybe it’s not?

Clifton StrengthsFinders* describes 34 strength themes that we all have, but to varying degrees.  They categorize these themes into four domains:  executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking.  If you’re particularly good at one of the above domains, chances are you have some of your dominant strengths in the respective category.

Influencing is the domain that is the biggest mystery to me, so I looked at the strengths listed in that category:  activator (starting things), command (taking control/making decisions), communication (verbal and non-verbal), competition, maximizer (strive for excellence in self and others), self-assurance (belief in one’s own ability to achieve things), significance (want to be important in the eyes of others), and woo (love meeting strangers and winning them over).  Approximately 25% of the strengths are in the influencing theme, and some themes not listed here can have influencing qualities.  For example, one can inspire others with their futuristic vision (futuristic) or passion for their idea or cause (belief), though those are primarily (but not exclusively) categorized as a strategic and executing theme, respectively.

Therefore, the vast majority of us have an influencing theme or two that we use every day, though we may not realize it.  As such, we all have the ability to influence and persuade.  The qualities involved in persuasion are varied but include being able to get things done (activator), or done well (maximize), and motivation to win (competition) or win others over (woo).  An element of confidence (command, self-assurance) and ability to communicate also facilitate this skill.

The beauty about strengths work is that by focusing on our strengths, we increase our happiness, engagement and effectiveness.  We also realize that we can’t be good at everything, as our strengths results are given in a list from strongest to weakest.  But we can use our strengths strategically to help fill in some of those gaps at the bottom of the list.

I’ll bet you have strengths that you use to fill in your gaps, but don’t realize it.  For example, I’m probably slightly above average in my ability to meet people and make a good connection with them such that we’re exchanging business cards at the end of the exchange.  But woo is probably #30 on my list.  This skill just does not come that easily to me.  It takes effort and concentration on my part, and I rely on some of my other skills that involve gathering information, using it creatively to make connections, and my desire to form deep relationships with and develop people to approximate a woo-type strength.  Voila.  A new tool for my toolkit.

Being a strengths coach is so much fun because I can help people strategize about how to use their strengths more effectively (strategic is my strongest domain).  I’m even practicing turning that strategic eye toward myself – it’s so much more fun, easy, and effective compared to focusing on my weaknesses.

Part of my goal with this blog is to influence others to take a personal journey of acceptance, forgiveness, and gratitude.   This is not my strongest domain as I’ve already pointed out.  But, I’ve used my activator to get this blog and this entry started, my command to make decisions about what to write, and strategic about how to write it, and my belief in the value of these concepts in people’s lives.  To the degree that I have influenced your thinking, then I have used my strengths effectively.  To the degree I have not, well, I’m a work in progress.

*Also see:  Uncovering Hidden Tools, Everyone’s Unique Awesomeness, Those That Drive Us Crazy, Do As I Say,

The Ubiquity of the Importance of Presence

No, not "presents"

No, not “presents”

I figure needing to google a word that I use in the title of this blog portends well for neither me nor the blog.  Yet I feel the need to explore this topic of presence (ha!  You might’ve thought I would google ubiquity… or maybe importance?).  I wish to differentiate presence from the concept of being present.  They are related, but different.  English majors, spiritual gurus and psychologists everywhere:  I apologize for taking liberties, as usual.  This blog is where I attempt to convert naïveté into a semblance of coherence, in a public fashion.

The presence I’m referring to is defined in the book Leadership Presence, by Lubar and Halpern.  The  book talks about presence in terms of leadership,  but learned from the art of acting and theater.  This type of presence is also used for professional effectiveness in terms of public speaking and interacting with customers or patients in a way that is responsive and authentic.  The authors describe four components of presence (PRES) as being present (P), reaching out to others with empathy and sharing of self (R), being expressive with body language and tone (E), and self-knowing (S).   R and S, and maybe to some degree E, are important components of emotional intelligence (EQ).   If you think about it, isn’t PRES the primary ingredients you’d like to experience when interacting with another person under any circumstances?

I personally feel presence, as defined by Lubar and Halpern (PRES), has been hugely helpful to my effectiveness as a speaker, facilitator and teacher.  But I am finding that PRES is also important in other areas of my life.  First, for my Command strength, I believe this strength has everything to do with PRES.  Command is not just about being able to command an audience or attention, but also has to do with influence and leadership.   Developing PRES concurrently develops Command skills in the best possible way, at least from my perspective.

PRES is also important for communication in my personal life.  Chris and I have decided to be proactive about managing our communication, especially when conflict is involved.  As a result, we have learned to use deep listening skills to communicate our relational needs to each other.  I know, it’s a little bit of a cliché, but when you commit to the process and really do it right, it makes a world of difference.  What is involved is listening to the other person until they’ve said everything they want to say (in a non-blaming way), and then you reflect back to them what they said.  When they’re done, it’s your turn.  There is no interrupting or criticizing the message (though you don’t have to agree, just try to understand).  To do this successfully, you must be total present to accurately capture their message, you should respond with empathy, and when communicating your own perspective/needs, you must have self-knowledge and share yourself.  Yeah.  That equals PRES.

Finally, I feel that what I learned at Arbinger is also the equivalent of PRES.  Arbinger talks of being out of the Box and interacting with people as humans, not objects.  So, PRES is required to some degree whenever you’re out of the Box.  But as I’ve discovered recently, when I move through life viewing every person I encounter as someone that is important, beautiful and talented (this is my interpretation of seeing them as people), I cannot help but interact with them on a new level.  I’m alive to where they are in that moment (distracted, happy, depressed), and open to interaction with them on whatever terms they wish (no eye contact, a smile, or a chat).  If they wish to engage, then my complete attention and Being is available to them.

Please do not misinterpret this essay to mean that I’m always PRES.  I’m not.  I’m only recently connecting the above dots (I told you I was working this out as I go) though this is probably painfully obvious to many of you already.  For me, I’m just getting my head around how important and impactful PRES is for almost every aspect of my life and deciding it’s well worth investing in.  Simply being present and out of the Box is difficult enough.   I’m never going to master either of them, but feel like these are essential tools for my lifelong journey.

I cannot help but feel that this is all the tip of the iceberg.  In what other dimensions or applications are these tools useful? What other tools are out there?  I’m excited to find out!

Conflict: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

conflict_workshop

I wish I had a dime for every conflict that didn’t end well.   Seemed like, no matter my intentions or resolve, disagreements almost always ended badly.  The knock-down-drag-outs usually left one or more people feeling hurt, and the relationship different afterwards.  The let’s-pretend-this-isn’t-an-issue had different intensity and duration, but still produced the same hurt feelings and damage in the end.  Conflict of either type can be particularly insidious because the trigger for each fight may vary so it feels like a new argument, but it may actually be masking the same underlying emotional battle.

If two people care about each other, and/or if the relationship is important to them, then why do we keep making the same mistake, the same way, over and over again?

I can only speculate as to the answer to this question.  I know for me, I have made the same mistake in the same way because I had approached the conflict the same way every time.     Things have only improved when I changed the one thing I have control over: me.

“Insanity:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

First eye-opener is that every success or failure in the relationship is due roughly 50% to me.  Whether we’re having fun and/or being productive, all the way to dysfunction-galore, it’s half my responsibility.   It’s not all his fault, no matter how “right” I think I am.  This most difficult step requires I assume responsibility for my share, then act accordingly.  Usually it means I examine my motivations, fears and desires and take ownership of them. My fears and insecurities are my responsibility to manage, not my partner’s to fix, heal, or placate.

For example, for decades (talk about stuck) I had arguments with someone close to me that always went the same way. What seemingly should’ve been a reasonable discussion would deteriorate into name-calling and finger-pointing. I could never understand why, but admittedly the topics that triggered the reaction were predictable.  I spent all that time feeling it was her fault, that she needed to change, not me.  Yet, even though it was predictable I couldn’t help but stepping into that same landmine repeatedly.  Now, who’s fault is that?

Things changed when I took a step back to ask myself how I was contributing to and reinforcing the dynamic.  I realized that I have a need to be heard.  It didn’t matter how reasonable I thought my position was or how calmly I stated my feelings, as it was creating an emotional reaction in my loved one. So, I was putting my need to be understood ahead of my relationship.  I couldn’t make her listen to me, why was I insisting on it?  Sounds like I was the problem, not her.

So I decided to change the rules of the dance (this is the second part of making a change). I would no longer tell her how I felt or what I wanted.  Instead, I acknowledged her needs and desires, but was clear and calm about what my boundaries were:  what I am willing to do, or what I wouldn’t do (determined by me as to whether I’d feel resentful afterward), without judgment or explanation.  Knowing and clearly communicating about my boundaries (and sticking to them) meant I would neither get angry nor martyr myself doing something I couldn’t happily do.

When  I refused to participate in the same argument, the conflict dynamic itself had to change.  We were then able to move into a collaborative style of problem-solving since we were no longer pushing the other’s hot button.  Ironically, by giving her what she needed, I was able to get what I needed.

Interestingly, in some situations I tend to go straight to talking it out, but in others I might try to avoid the issue.  Avoiding, or even acquiescing every time may preserve the appearance of peace, but the damage is still done.  Neither approach solves serious or long-term problems or really avoids causing resentment or bad feelings somewhere in the relationship.  Changing my approach means reaching out to the other with an open mind and respect for their feelings, with the goal of understanding.  It helps to request the conversation in advance and have them choose the time and the place.  Oh, and I bring chocolate.  Lots of it.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t?  Maybe.  If handled with love, respect, clarity, and personal responsibility, conflict can be a growth opportunity for you, your partner and your relationship.  Conflict can enable people to right wrongs or make important course corrections.  It can help each come to a better understanding of the other, result in better decision-making, and reaffirm the bond and commitment between the pair, whether in a personal or professional relationship.

Unfortunately, successfully managing conflict, or anything else in the relationship, is still a shared responsibility.  It is possible to approach disagreements with the spirit of openness and collaboration, but if your partner is still avoiding or fighting to win, all you can do is keep trying different approaches to engage them in collaboration.  Be creative.  Take a chance. If  they then continue to insist on fighting or stonewalling, your only option may be to accept that the dynamic won’t change and work within that reality.  You can always try again another time, as people do change, especially if they observe successful change in others.

I’m better at conflict now – I have better tools in my conflict management toolbox. It is still far from perfect – I can still get my buttons pushed way too easily and fall back into old habits.  But I  forgive myself for not having this nailed down.  I forgive others too for where they are in their journey to be a better person. I celebrate when we make progress.  After all, in the conflict dance, it still takes two to tango.