Where do we go wrong?
One of the saddest things I see time and time again in my work as a Clinical Psychologist is partners who both love each other and try their best to show this to each other, and yet neither of them feel loved and appreciated.
The same thing also happens frequently within families, either between parents and their children or between siblings.
In the excellent book, ‘Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well’ by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, they highlight nicely why this often occurs:
Firstly, we are aware of our thoughts, feelings and intentions behind whatever actions we do. The other person is not. All they can see is what we say, how we say it, and our behaviour or body language. Our body language has been shown to influence approximately 55% of how others interpret and find meaning in what we are saying to them, with 38% being how we say it, and only 7% what we actually say (Mehrabian,1971). Worse still, these non-verbal cues are generally out of our awareness, meaning we don’t see what they see either.
Secondly, we are not able to fully control how our message will be taken in and interpreted by the other person, no matter how precisely we choose our words or actions. This is because how someone understands what we say is based on their past experiences, core beliefs about others or our role (partner, sibling, parent or child), and their expectations and assumptions of what we are like or how we should be. This creates particular biases before we have even opened our mouth, and affects how they are impacted by what we do and say.
Lastly, if we make a mistake or an error or upset someone, we will usually attribute it to the context or situational factors rather than seeing it as something to do with our character (e.g. “I didn’t wash the dishes because I was running late for work”). Conversely, When others make a mistake or upset us, we often attribute it to a personality characteristic or an unchangeable flaw (e.g. “you didn’t wash the dishes because you are lazy and disrespectful”). What happens next is that we usually criticise their character, which they rightly become defensive over, and they try to explain the context, which we tell them is just an excuse. When our character is being criticised, the opposite happens, and we wonder how they can be so cruel and unforgiving (making further judgments about their character and personality). It’s no wonder that relationships are so tricky!
What can we do?
1. Develop Active Listening Skills
Rather than assume the intent of others based on how they made us feel, it is much better to try and understand their perspective first and show this understanding through the skills of active listening, including:
- clarifying: asking for more information on what they were talking about
- “what did you mean by…?”,
- “can you elaborate further on …?”
- paraphrasing: repeating back what was said to you in another way
- them: “it’s like 100 degrees outside!”
- you: “it’s so hot!”
- reflecting: showing that you understand how they felt
- them: “I had nothing to do all weekend!”
- you: “you must have been bored!”
- summarising: especially if someone has been speaking for a few minutes on a topic
- them: multiple stories about the various things that have gone wrong for them recently
- you: “sounds like you’ve had a rough week!”
Some people will get annoyed if you don’t fully understand them or what they are feeling in the moment, but even this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the other person and to get better attuned with how they think and feel going forward. Most people will appreciate the effort.
2. Follow the Three Principles of Humanistic Psychology
Carl Rogers was a Humanistic Psychologist who believed that only three elements were essential for promoting growth and well-being in others. These were:
- Unconditional Positive Regard: No matter what the other person does or doesn’t do, it is essential to separate the person from their actions, and continue to see the person positively. As a parent or a partner, it is more than okay to not accept or tolerate certain behaviours, but we need to show that we are unhappy with the behaviour rather than who they are. If it is someone that we love, our love for them should not diminish, because we can still see that they are a good person who sometimes does the wrong thing. If they can feel this, it will help them learn right from wrong going forward, rather than feeling like they have to be a certain way to be loved.
- Empathic Attunement: It is important to really try to see the world in the way that the other person does, and understand how they view the particular situation and feel about it. If we can show this to them in a way that they feel it, they will know that we get it and will develop greater trust in opening up to us about other things going forward. They will also feel less alone and isolated and will be more responsive if we then suggest potential ways to help them out of a predicament. Without understanding first, any advice that is given usually falls flat and is not taken on at best, or is seen as uncaring and interfering at worst.
- Congruency: It is essential to make sure that what we are expressing is consistent with how we feel (in a way that is appropriate to the other person or audience). Obviously, a parent who is upset at something that has happened in their life may not want to burden a child with their problems. However, it still better to say “Mummy is a little upset but she is going to be okay” rather than “nothing, everything is fine” when a child asks “what’s wrong mummy?” because they have accurately picked up on how you are feeling. Telling them something that is not congruent with how you feel will only confuse them and potentially make them doubt their perception and judgment going forward. The more congruent we are, the more trustworthy we are to others, and the less they have to worry about resentment building up or things being kept from them.
3. Practice Effective Communication
As part of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan teaches interpersonal effectiveness skills. She says that if we want to get an objective met when communicating, try the following four steps:
D – Describe the situation, and stick to facts, not judgments
(e.g.”When you are 30 minutes late”, not “When you are rude and don’t care!”).
E – Explain how you feel
(Emotions – e.g. “I feel hurt and upset!”. Not opinions – e.g. “I feel like you don’t care at all!”)
A – Ask for what you need or would prefer
(Behaviours – e.g. “I would prefer that if you are late next time that you either try to leave a bit earlier or text or call to let me know that you are running late”. Not feelings – e.g. “I would prefer if you actually cared about and loved me like you say you do”).
R – Reinforce the potential benefits to them, you and the relationship if they could do what you have asked
(e.g. “Then you won’t need to rush as much, you’ll be safer on the road getting here, I won’t worry as much, we won’t end up fighting, and we’ll be able to enjoy a great night out together!”).
You might be sceptical, but it really can work, and it does become more comfortable with practice.
4. Avoid the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
John Gottman, the legendary relationship researcher, claims that he can successfully predict with a 91% accuracy which couples will get divorced in the future after observing them for only five minutes. He says that if you want to avoid a later break-up (the apocalypse), it is essential to prevent the following four things (the four horsemen) that can significantly erode the goodwill of a relationship over time. These are:
- Criticism: While it is essential to be able to make a complaint about a specific behaviour in a relationship (e.g. “you left the toilet seat up again”), a criticism about who the person is will never be helpful (e.g. “you’re such a slob!”).
- Contempt: This includes anything that communicates disgust, resentment or looking down upon the other. This may be spoken through hostile humour such as sarcasm, cynicism or name-calling, or displayed through behaviours such as eye rolling, sneering or mocking laughter with the head tilted back. Building a culture of mutual respect and appreciation is the antidote to this.
- Defensiveness: This is usually in response to criticisms or contempt, and each partner then feels that they are right and the other is wrong and the argument becomes about who is going to win. When each partner is trying to win an argument and blame the other, it is the relationship that suffers in the end. It’s much better to take responsibility for your part, and then work towards what will be best for both of you going forward.
- Stonewalling: Eventually, after escalating conflict, one partner tries to tune out the other partner, disengaging from the communication or the relationship emotionally while remaining physically present. This is done more by males than females and is a way to calm themselves down when they are feeling emotionally overwhelmed and flooded. The result on the other partner is escalating distress, much like a baby who is suddenly cut off from being able to interact with their mother in the Stillface Experiment:
Letting your partner know that you are overwhelmed and need a 20-minute break but that you will definitely be back and will be happy to continue the discussion once you are feeling calmer is a much more effective way than just shutting off or shutting out the other person. It also leads to both of you feeling more in control and less distressed.
5. Find Out Their Primary and Secondary Love Languages
Often people will express their love to others in the way that they would most want, rather than showing their love in the way that their partner, child, parent or sibling would want.
For example, a lot of fathers will try to show their love to their children by working hard, making lots of money, and providing financial security and stability for their future. What the child often wants is just to spend some time with their dad, playing at the park, kicking the football or playing video games together.
The most confusing scenario to me (that seems to happen way more than it should) is males, who are usually more visual than females, sending explicit pictures of themselves to their female partners because they would really like to receive a graphic image from their partner. They, therefore, assume that their partner would want the same. Meanwhile, their female partners, who are usually more sentimental than males, may actually prefer some flowers or a lovely card with a thoughtful handwritten message, but men don’t seem to understand this, because it’s typically not something that they would ever want to receive. Therefore they don’t see the point. Big mistake! Just ask Kevin James:
This is where understanding the five love languages, written about by Gary Chapman in various books, becomes very handy.
The first step, when trying to show someone that you care, is to figure out which love languages seem to mean the most to them. There is a questionnaire on the website http://www.5lovelanguages.com that you could ask the other person to complete if you are unsure what they value most and want to understand them better.
The next step is to disregard what you would want from them, and do what you think will make them the happiest, based on their love language preferences:
- Words of Affirmation:
- DO: Give them compliments, encouraging words, written cards or letters
- DON’T: Give them undue criticism or emotionally harsh words
- Quality Time:
- DO: Give them your undivided attention, have one-on-one conversations without interruptions, do things together, take trips together, sit and talk
- DON’T: Spend too much time with friends or groups (even if it’s together), neglect them or have long gaps of time between catch-ups and check-ins
- DO: Give gifts, give time, remember special occasions, give small tokens of appreciation or love – show that you have put in the effort or thought in choosing
- DON’T: Forget special events or anniversaries, or buy meaningless, generic or thoughtless gifts that show that you haven’t put in time or effort in choosing
- Acts of Service:
- DO: Assist with chores, make a checklist together, tick something off their to-do-list, fix something, ask “How can I help?” or “What can I do?”
- DON’T: Overcommit to tasks that you won’t be able to complete, forget to follow through on something you have promised to do, fail to help.
- Physical Touch:
- DO: Sit close, hug, touch
- DON’T: Withhold affection or threaten to do so, neglect, physically hit or abuse
By loving those that we love in the way that they want to be loved, there is a much higher chance that we will also feel loved and appreciated too, and the quality of our relationships is likely to improve immensely. Seeing that relationship warmth is the number one predictor of long-term health and happiness, making a few small changes in how we listen to, talk to and care for others could go a long way to improving the overall quality of our lives.
Dr Damon Ashworth