Katelyn Hannel opens her toolbox of strategies for keeping relationships healthy and secure.
Imagine for a moment you’re traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. You get lost and can’t find your way. You stop to ask for help – only to find that the other person has no idea what you’re saying.
You keep trying to explain, and become increasingly exasperated when what you say is not understood. You instinctively begin raising your voice – and as a result, they do, too. Eventually you throw your hands in the air and walk away, feeling more frustrated than ever – and still lost.
This type of interaction is much more common than it might seem – also when there is no (apparent) language barrier. Even if both parties think they are speaking the same language, there can be significant gaps in understanding.
Communication is an essential foundation of nearly everything we do in life.
It is the vehicle through which we share our interior life with others, and understand theirs in turn. As relational beings, we thrive on connection – and our ability to form positive relationships depends on our ability to communicate effectively.
Young children’s first words are met with celebration. As they gain language, they learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and to take their turn within a conversation.
Beyond these everyday courtesies, the big step is to learn how to express our thoughts, opinions, emotions and needs, and how to respond to those of others.
The degree of this sharing depends on the degree of the relationship. We typically don’t demand a deeper level of emotional support from an acquaintance or co-worker; but we do rightfully expect it from our close friends and family. Within all these contexts, however, the core need and goal is the same: to feel safe, secure, supported and understood.
In healthy relationships, positive interactions as well as properly managed conflict can become opportunities for growth and deepening of trust. But for those who have not experienced healthy conflict resolution, it can be a source of fear and anxiety. Children who grew up in families with volatile emotional reactions – or conversely, patterns of unspoken conflict – might find that they walk on eggshells and fear what conflict might bring.
Nowadays, many are seeking and discovering new communication tools as adults. With counseling and psychological support becoming increasingly normalized, people are finding therapy a healthy outlet through which to understand their experiences.
The massive following of therapy-focused social media accounts shows there is a hunger for freedom from unhealthy behavioral patterns.
Some might marvel that they suddenly have words for experiences they never knew how to express before.
The work of Drs John and Julie Gottman, under the title of the Gottman Institute, has gained particular popularity for their study of relationship dynamics. Their insights focus primarily on marriages, but the principles can be applied to any situation – family dynamics, friendships, ideological disagreements, or problem-solving in the workplace.
The Gottmans identify what they call the ‘Four Horsemen’: four common types of unhealthy behavior which hinder connection and understanding, and can be poisonous to relationships.
In response, they also identify four antidotes – strategies for building positive relationships where all parties feel valued. Some might have a more natural intuition for these things – but for many, they need to be intentionally taught, named and practiced.
One of the ‘horsemen’ that stands out strongly is contempt. The word ‘contempt’ can mean a disregard or disdain for others, or can refer to specific forms of behavior which demean another person: mocking, ridiculing, rolling one’s eyes, the use of condescending language and so on. Like bullying, it often comes from a place of woundedness, and is (consciously or not) used to maintain a sense of superiority.
This might sound dramatic, yet it is more commonly found than we might think. We might see this in strained family relationships or marriages; or in endless social media arguments, where others are mocked and brushed aside.
If contempt is a disregard for others, then the alternative, according to the Gottmans, is a ‘culture of appreciation’.
It has been suggested that it requires five positive interactions to outweigh one negative one.
Since negative experiences often etch themselves more deeply into our consciousness, we need a strong foundation of positive interactions in order to feel secure.
Small everyday moments of affirmation – genuine compliments of people’s strengths, simple expressions of being happy to see them – can go a long way in building trust and helping others feel they are genuinely valued for who they are. These positive interactions are like deposits into a bank, which can later be drawn from when needed to resolve problems.
A child who feels valued by their parents – or a student by their teacher, or an employee by their employer – will have an easier time managing the occasional correction or rebuke.
Friends of differing worldviews who feel they are valued as whole persons will more likely be comfortable sharing their thoughts freely without fear of rejection. Disagreements become less threatening when they are grounded in the context of genuine appreciation and respect.
When conflicts do arise, it is easy to slip into negative patterns unless we have better tools for how to handle them. Thus the other three horsemen (and antidotes) deal largely with how we respond to conflict.
One is criticism. The Gottmans are quick to clarify that criticism in this sense is not the same as sharing a concern or frustration. Rather than being focused on a particular issue, or proposing a solution, ‘criticism’ is found in statements framed as personal attacks: “You don’t care…” “You always….”
As an antidote to criticism, they suggest a ‘gentle start-up’, or what could be called the use of ‘I’ statements. To use an ‘I’ statement means to frame the situation in terms of one’s own emotions and needs, rather than in terms of the other person’s character. Rather than saying, “You always….” or “You never….”, one might say, “I get frustrated when…. It would help me if you would….”
If this sounds naive, I used to think so, too. I remember learning about ‘I’ statements as a student in primary school, as part of an anti-bullying curriculum; for a long time, I would look back on it and roll my eyes, seeing it as just another cliché told to kids before they grow up and learn how the ‘real world’ works.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that, in fact, this procedure can be powerful and productive: because it is non-accusatory and keeps the focus on the problem itself. In turn, it helps to keep problems from escalating. It is an example of communicating one’s needs with both honesty and respect.
Some might also think that having such sentence structures stifles organic self-expression. But these structures can often be liberating: giving one the words needed to share one’s internal experiences authentically with others. How many times have we found ourselves in a situation where we felt like we didn’t know what words to employ? Wouldn’t it help to have something to use?
The third horseman is defensiveness: when one responds to critique by avoiding responsibility or deflecting blame onto another person. When this occurs, the first person likely will not feel heard, and the conflict continues to go unresolved. (And many of us likely know the experience of another person becoming defensive when the statement wasn’t intended as a criticism at all.)
The healthier response is, unsurprisingly, taking responsibility. We must know our flaws and be willing to acknowledge where we have let others down, even unintentionally.
In many conflicts, responsibility does not rest solely on one person; often there are competing factors at play, which exacerbate each other.
Nonetheless, it’s important to receive feedback and be willing to consider one’s own role, and try to make amends where needed. If, after genuine self-reflection, one feels that the criticism was not entirely well-founded, this can be expressed in a respectful way.
An important note is that this doesn’t have to be solely about major, earth-shattering conflicts. When we can practice navigating small everyday issues, it often keeps those issues from developing into larger conflicts.
If we have a responsibility not to frame our statements as personal attacks, then we also have a responsibility not to interpret automatically others’ statements as personal attacks either. It’s often the sign of a very healthy relationship that each can speak openly to the other without the assumption of offense.
Sometimes, however, conflicts touch on particularly sensitive issues which trigger very strong emotions. When existing sensitivities are triggered, old wounds can feel fresh and tender. One might become emotionally flooded: when emotions are in such high gear that one can’t think straight. This is also correlated to the physiological state of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’.
In these situations, we might see the fourth horseman, known as stonewalling: “Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to the other. The conversation is cut off, leaving the other feeling unheard, unacknowledged, and unsure of what to expect next.”
The antidote here is what the Gottmans call ‘physiological self-soothing’. This means employing a strategy to calm one’s body and mind – which most often means taking a break from the interaction. Rather than turning a cold shoulder, one can communicate to the other person that one is feeling overwhelmed, and needs a pause. It’s important also to plan a time to return to the conversation so that both parties know there will be an opportunity for closure.
All of these communication strategies require an internal awareness of one’s emotions, and a willingness to articulate them – a whole learning process in itself.
Perhaps each of us must learn that it is not a weakness to voice our emotions; rather, when expressed within appropriate boundaries, it is a sign of maturity and confidence.
Some might need additional support systems to accomplish this goal. In particular, those who have had very negative or even traumatic experiences will need more supports in order to feel safe and emotionally regulated. But anyone can benefit from seeing a therapist or spiritual director. We are better able to communicate in healthy ways when we are healthy internally ourselves.
Communicating in these ways also requires commitment and practice. We’re not expected to turn off our human instincts or emotions (and if we think we can, we’re only fooling ourselves). There will likely still be moments in which we suddenly find ourselves snapping or shutting down when we didn’t expect. But what matters is that we can recognize those moments, attempt to make amends, and use them as opportunities to keep learning.
Since relationships are a two-way street, we also must recognize that these efforts will only fully bear fruit when they are part of a team effort. One can only control one’s own actions, and not another person. We can’t control the inner workings of their minds, or their reactions, or the words they say. And part of loving others is accepting their own place in the process.
Ultimately, there’s no perfect formula and no assurance that, if we follow a certain set of steps, everything will go smoothly and we’ll have perfect relationships. In moments when push comes to shove and tensions are high, a checklist from an article doesn’t answer every question. These experiences can’t be predicted, or scripted, or controlled. They can only be lived.
But the more we keep practicing such strategies in our own lives – and even more so, naming and sharing them – the more we set a positive example for others. The result will not necessarily be world peace and universal brotherhood, but it might lead to inner serenity which can sometimes seem just as hard to achieve.
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