As a couples therapist with decades of training and experience, I admit it – I pride myself on having above-average communication skills. So the other day, I was both surprised and a bit humbled when a young couple taught me something new about communicating!
It was their fourth couples therapy session and they had just seated themselves on the love seat in my office. As I often do, I asked them to begin by engaging in a brief Appreciation Dialogue – an exchange where each partner is invited to share something they appreciated that the other had done in the past week.
The husband turned, faced his wife, and proceeded to tell her how much he had welcomed her skill in helping them both defuse and transform a recent, angry exchange into a calm, and connecting conversation. Once they had each finished sharing their respective appreciations, I asked the wife to say more about what she had done to bring about such a dramatic shift in the middle of a fight.
She at first, and then they together, (we’ll call her Kate and him Mike), shared the following story . . .
“We were both so furious”
Just home from a social gathering, Mike opened up to Kate about the irritation he had experienced in reaction to a comment she made at the gathering. To Mike’s ear, it had felt very much like a contradiction to something he had just said. “It felt like she was “disagreeing” with me in public!” Words were exchanged and before long, both of them were “furious” – so much so, they eventually gave up trying to talk. They sat, in mutual stony silence, unable to break the cycle of negativity that had so thoroughly overtaken them.
At this point in their story, Kate reminded me of something she had been studying over the past year: Nonviolent Communication, (NVC), a time-tested communication process developed by a Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. Kate said that despite being absolutely furious with Mike, there was, at the same time, a persistent voice in her head reminding her to use the skills she had been learning in her NVC practice group. She knew that the next step from an NVC perspective would be to actively inquire about her husband’s needs – specifically those needs that had gone unmet when she had said what she did at the event.
Just one, tiny problem.
There was, unfortunately, just one small hiccup: in her current state of reactivity, Kate admitted she couldn’t have cared less about any of Mike’s needs.
We’ve all been there. Your partner comes to you with a complaint. Maybe not so nicely. You feel criticized and hurt, but more than that, you feel pissed off! Your defenses shoot up. How could he/she be saying this to you? You didn’t do anything of the sort!
Now, we all have little voices in our head, yes? Like the one Kate described, that tells you it would be sooo much better, (and would likely gain you innumerable points with your couples therapist), if you would just immediately turn and mirror your partner, put yourself in her/his shoes, validate and/or empathize with his/her feelings… the list goes on. But you’re in a damned argument, and you just got wacked and guess what? You don’t give a flying #%!@!
Your old brain has just concluded that you’re in a bit of danger, so it has done exactly what it’s supposed to do: pumped your system, including your neo-cortex, with cortisol, so that you are now smack in fight &/or flight mode. This ancient, instinctive part of your brain, the part most responsible for your survival, has just made sure there’s only one thing you now care about: stopping whatever or whomever is causing you pain! And there’s no guessing as to who that someone is… it’s your (*%!#*) partner!
“Think about him, think about him”
Kate realized that if she was going to apply the steps she’d been practicing in her NVC training, she would just have to “fake it”, because that’s about all she felt capable of doing in that moment. One can imagine the effort it must have taken for her to forcibly focus her attention away from her own hurt to mentally trying to identify what need(s) of Mike’s might have triggered such anger. “I just kept telling myself, ‘think about him, think about him’, and to try and ‘figure out what his unmet need might be.’”
She began throwing out possibilities: “Was your need for ….?” or “….?” Mike acknowledged that each of the needs she proposed seemed to describe some of what he had been needing, but not all.
As the process proceeded, both noticed a slowly growing shift in their feeling state. Mike’s anger began to give way to surprise and gratitude that Kate suddenly seemed to actually care about his needs. Kate, too, felt surprised to notice that each time Mike validated one of her guesses, her own defenses seemed to soften.
“A light bulb went off”
Finally, she said, “a light bulb went off and I thought I might have it.”
She asked Mike if her hunch was correct. To her relief and his, Mike not only affirmed that she had nailed it, but tears began to roll down his face. His wife’s efforts to identify his unmet needs had touched Mike deeply. (Later, he shared that though he had been well provided for as a boy growing up, he had rarely experienced anyone having interest in his emotional needs or feelings.)
In short time, the “fight” was gone, replaced with a feeling of connection and accomplishment. Now calm, Kate and Mike were able to continue talking about the event, but this time in the way every couple I’ve ever known wishes they could.
“So, what happened here?”
More than one noteworthy point could be made here. I want to focus on two.
The first will be familiar to anyone who knows Imago. Whenever one partner is willing and able to “gift” the other by meeting an important unmet need from the partner’s childhood, and when the recipient of that gift can take it in, anger and defensiveness are almost always dissolved and replaced with loving connection.
The second highlights a basic, underlying tenant of Nonviolent Communication: that is, that all human beings share the same basic needs – planet wide. As NVC points out, we may have different strategies for reaching those needs, but the needs themselves are universal. So, when needs are clarified, the possibility of one person being able to identify with another is often greatly enhanced. The possibility of connection or re-connection is similarly amplified once we are able to see ourselves in the “other”.
As Mike responded to each of Kate’s guesses regarding his unmet needs, they both began to relax. He because she cared enough to try and understand; she because she now had valuable information that allowed her to move past her own reactivity and focus instead on something she could easily understand: Mike’s desire for unity.
I don’t imagine Kate started out expecting to help herself when she began trying to uncover Mike’s unmet need(s), but this is exactly what happened. The more she saw the common underlying need that united them both, the easier it became to experience genuine, rather than “fake”, concern for her husband’s feelings. Her desire to help followed naturally from that.
Honestly, I had never heard of “NVC”, but after hearing this couple’s story, I wanted to know more. I have begun reading and watching some of the many NVC youtube videos. I encourage you to do the same.
My journey into NVC has just begun… I hope you will feel inspired to check back periodically as I learn and post more about this time-tested method that brought such relief to my couple. My own tool box has been added to and sharpened….. maybe yours will be, as well.
Take care of yourselves and each other,