I’d like to share some wise words from Scott Catamas, couples counselor, and master coach and teacher in the art of compassionate communications (NVC). He presents workshops using this powerful approach throughout the United States and Europe.
Scott: My experience working with hundreds of couples is that you and your partner’s unhealed stuff from the past – old wounds, unmet needs, will come together in a ‘perfect storm’. But that’s not a bad thing. We can use this “storm” to teach each other what we need to learn in order to heal and grow. So learn what your issues are and how to say to your partner, ‘I think we’re about to move into a perfect storm right now.’
Before either you or your partner confront one another with any issue, it’s wise for each of you to ask yourself “ ‘Am I really in a place, at this time, where I’m both in touch with my own feelings and needs and I genuinely care about my partner’s needs and feelings? If not, find another time. Do not engage when you’re triggered. Quality conversation requires self-reflection. So, if you find yourself already starting to talk about a touchy issue, and are not in this space, call time out and get centered. And let your partner know that you’re doing this so you can be in a better place to truly hear what’s going on for him or her.”
Editor’s note: As an NVC student, myself, I’d also advise taking time to give yourself empathy for the unmet needs that are triggering your end of the conflict –be they need for respect, support, understanding, autonomy, freedom, etc.
Scott continues: “Before you address the problem issue, lead with reassurance that you care. If you can, before speaking, take your partner’s hands, look in each other’s eyes, and breathe together. See if you can let go of the need to be right. Choose harmony and mutual understanding, instead. In fact, it’s often worthwhile, before discussing the conflict, to acknowledge one another for what is working in the relationship. It may help to help to recall a time when you both were in harmony, and how good that felt.
Once you begin to talk, be aware of speed/cadence and rhythm of your speech. Slow down. One thought at a time. Before you move on, ask for reflection. A general rule of thumb: Talk for 60 seconds or less. In fact, take time to acknowledge what you need to stay connected. Instead of telling your partner what he is doing wrong, e.g., ‘You talk to fast’. own your own feelings and needs with a statement like, ‘ It’ll be much easier for me to truly hear you if you will speak more slowly and take a breath’. Or, ‘I’d like you to know something about me. I really appreciate it when you slow down and talk to me from your heart.’
Now is the time to differentiate between the judgmental brain and the compassionate heart. One way to do this is to shift your consciousness: Instead of making your partner wrong, see if you can come from a place of curiosity. Try imagining that your partner is a strange creature from another planet. Hold the thought, ‘He/she is incredibly different from me and will always be a source of mystery. ‘ See if you can hold a thought of researching one another with curiosity and wonder.
As you address the difficult issue, do your best to express your side without blaming or judging your partner. Instead, talk about the feelings and unmet needs that are fueling the conflict. If your partner slips into blaming or judging you, remember, he is also expressing his precious, unmet needs, but they’re coming out as criticism. (When we perceive our partner’s words as attack, we tend to run them through our minds and can make ourselves sick. Instead, it’s healthier to get in touch with his unmet needs that are fueling his judging words, such as need for respect, appreciation, autonomy, trust, care, etc.
If your partner continues to complain about what you do or don’t do that upsets him, you might ask ‘Before I respond, would you be willing to give me appreciation and reassurance for the things I do that please you?’
It’s also important to remember that expressing your need does not mean that your partner is then responsible for fulfilling that need. In fact, no one is ever responsible for meeting another’s needs unless you both agree to do so in a specific situation. . If we think we’re responsible to meet these needs then we may feel overwhelmed, guilty or resentful.
However, just being present and holding one another’s unmet needs with respect, compassion and care can begin to heal even the deepest conflicts.
Editor’s note: In a future blog we’ll discuss the art of finding mutually-agreed upon strategies for meeting one another’s needs.
I’d like to end with a list that summarizes the above in what Scott, and his wife, Gabriele call: THE 7 ADJUSTMENTS. Keep them in mind, or even on a little index card, so that you’ll have easy access to them when you and your partner are in disharmony.
1. Willingness to change instead of blame
2. Compassion instead of judgement
3. Reassurance instead of shame
4. Appreciation instead of criticism
5. Understanding instead of blame
6. Acceptance instead of guilt
7. Curiosity instead of making wrong