Ever feel like you’re not quite sure how a conversation got so out of hand? Maybe you started talking about plans to visit your mother and ended up in a yelling match about something that happened years ago. Sometimes you can feel like the person you are talking to is from another planet. And this is not because either of you looks or acts strange, but because you just can’t understand what the other is saying, or more importantly, what they mean by the words coming out of their mouth.
At times communication can be very challenging. This is partially due to the fact that in every relationship there are 3 interdependent entities at work that all need to be considered at the same time. These entities are namely–I, You and Us. The agenda of all these entities is to avoid pain and be understood, but often the approaches taken to accomplish this is what causes problems. Our style of managing conflict depends on how we have learned to cope and deal with pain.
The “I” part of a relationship is filled with thoughts and feelings that are filtered through a unique history and set of experiences that affect what is heard and how it is heard. For example if I had a bad day at work and when I get home the first question my spouse asks is “What’s for dinner,” depending on the tone of the question, my response will be based on how I process that question through my own emotional filter of sadness or frustration. In that simple question I might have heard “I am not important” or “I am a failure” or “I am inadequate.” The “I” in this situation might hear this message as a result of past personal pain that was triggered by events at work. In an effort to avoid pain, the “I” will practice coping behaviors that were learned long before “I” met “You.” And “I’s” response could result in behaviors that include things like getting angry, crying, criticizing or shutting down. These styles of coping generally fall under the category of blaming, shaming, controlling or escaping.
Likewise the “You” has its own set of thoughts, feelings and experiences that act as a filter and affect what is said and understood. In the same scenario, suppose “You” felt hungry and was looking forward to having a meal together and wanted I’s input. In this case I’s response could be quite confusing. In this situation, based on your partner’s history of personal pain, I’s response might have been interpreted by “You” as “I’m not safe” or “I am unworthy.” As a result, the “You” might try to avoid pain by using sarcasm, manipulation, nagging or avoiding. The thoughts and responses of both I and You feed into painful feelings which escalate conflict and create a cycle of miscommunication for Us.
This third entity, Us, is a culmination of shared experiences. The Us processes information based on history together and can be triggered by non-verbal as well as verbal cues. Have you ever just had a sense that “We’re about to have an argument?” That’s the Us sensing danger and preparing to avoid pain. The Us is greatly influenced by the independent experiences of “I” and “You” as well as the give and take experiences between the two. The cycle created through these experiences with giving and receiving information becomes the learned coping style of Us. So not only is communication influenced by what I say, hear and understand based on my unique set of experiences, but it is also impacted by what You say, hear and understand and what was felt and experienced by Us.
You’re probably thinking –“No wonder it’s so complicated!” And because relationships thrive on communication it’s important to make every effort to get it right. Especially when a message that is misunderstood or a non-verbal cue that is misread can cause problems that can escalate quickly. So if you’re feeling a conflict or a disconnection, then try remembering the simple phrase and 7 letter acronym I LOVE US. It can help you regulate your own emotions and be a quick positive reminder to stay on track while helping you improve communication.
- I – I have my own thoughts, feelings and reactions. Ask yourself these questions: What am I feeling and why? What do I tend to do when I feel this way and what reaction do I usually get? Is that the reaction I want? What do I want & need? What can I do differently?
- Listen – Listen to your answers and listen to your spouse’s pain. This can be challenging so take a breath and a longer pause than you might be used to. Allow the other person to get their thoughts completely out without interruption or feeling rushed. Listen to understand rather than to just reply.
- Observe – Observe your own feelings and your partner’s body language without reacting, almost as if you were watching a movie. Observe without criticism to gain information.
- Validate – Acknowledge the other person’s feelings by paraphrasing what you hear. This shows that you are listening and seek to understand. For example: “I hear you saying you feel exhausted because you had a hard day at work. Is that right?”
- Express – If what you hear is correct then express compassion and/or offer to help. You can also express your thoughts and feelings in a constructive and respectful way using the US part of the acronym.
- Use “I” Statements – Phrase everything from your point of view, and really hold yourself to not using the word “you.” It sounds ridiculously simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. This puts the focus on what you’re feeling and thinking, rather than assuming or accusing.
- Say what you mean & Stay on the Subject – When tempers rise it’s easy to say things you don’t really mean. Take a breath. Think before you speak and only say what you mean and what is relevant to the topic. Words can’t be taken back.
Although this tool can be easy to remember it does take practice and might require the help of a therapist to aid in creating positive lasting change. Don’t be hard on yourselves. Take a time out to avoid escalating conflicts when necessary and seek professional help when needed.
Wishing you Blockbuster Love Always,
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