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Keeping Cool – Communication Tips For When You Heat Up

communication tips

You know how it goes. You set out to have a calm conversation with your teenager or your partner and, before you know it, you’re both yelling like banshees or retreating in sullen, angry silence to your respective corners. You’re either fighting or fleeing. The following communication tips will help you stay cool when things heat up during important conversations:

Breathe
When we humans get upset, our pulse and breath quicken, the blood rushes to our core, and we are ready to either flee our enemy or stand and fight. This was a really great asset when we lived in caves and wild animal attacks could be a daily occurrence. Neither of these responses is helpful, however, in a situation that calls for calm speaking, attentive listening and compromise. So the first antidote for a plunge into fight or flight mode is slow, deep breathing.

Sit Down
We are naturally calmer when we sit but, even more helpful, we seem calmer and less aggressive to others when we are seated because we remain at their level and are prevented from pacing or moving into their space. We also can’t flail our arms as much, which, if you think about it, makes us look kind of scary.

Listen
Set aside your own agenda while the other person is speaking, and try to simply listen. This is much harder than it sounds. To really listen you have to turn off that pesky critical running commentary in your head, the one that thinks of corrections or comebacks for each point the other person presents, and is just dying to get a word in edgewise. There will be time for your speaking later. For now . . . sit down, shut up and listen.

Then, Finally, Speak
Tell your story, your version of the event, calmly and clearly. And, yes, I am going to suggest that you use I statements. But not one of the many have-your-blame-and-eat-it-too versions of the I statement, like “I feel you should” or “I think you are.” When you really analyze them, you see that these statements are actually just sneaky ways to say “You should” or “You are.” These, then, are actually “you statements,” which are a big no-no in a difficult or heated conversation because they tend to make people want to hit you.

Communicating clearly and respectfully when we’re upset is hard work, and it’s easy to let our emotions overwhelm us and send us into that mode in which we feel our only options are to fight or flee. But it is next to impossible to live in this mode while also staying in relationship with the important people in our lives.

So, the next time you feel your emotions pushing you over the edge, remember to breathe, sit, listen and, only then, speak. If you can progress through these communication tips in this order, you and your relationship will live to fight communicate another day.

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

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Now it’s your turn. Let us know how these ideas work for you, or share your own communication tips in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, check out these other posts on relationships: Is Breaking Up Really Hard To Do?, I Statements 101 and Conquering Our Inner Toddler.

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I Statements For Dummies

I statementsYeah, yeah, yeah. We all know we should try to use “I statements” when we are speaking with someone about a difficult topic. I statements provide clarity regarding our thinking and feeling about an event, and keep us calm and respectful by moving us away from our tendency to blame each other.

But if you’ve ever actually tried to use this strategy in the middle of a heated discussion, you know it can be a little tricky. Read on for some help in implementing this important, but often misunderstood, strategy.

I Statement Imposters Unmasked
Contrary to public opinion, simply putting the words “I feel” or “I think” in front of a sentence does not an I statement make. The “I feel” statement can be particularly difficult to craft well, and the result is that many imposters abound. Here’s how to spot the little rascals . . .

“I feel you need to spend more time at home.“ This is not really an expression of your feeling, but another way of giving your partner a sort of duty or command, as in, “You should spend more time at home.”

“I feel you are being selfish.” This is a rather clever way to label and/or criticize your partner without actually appearing to do this. AKA, “You are selfish.”

“I feel I am right about this.” Sneaky.  But, no. “I am right about this” is not a feeling; it’s an assertion of the superiority of your viewpoint. What you are really saying here is, “You are wrong.”

The above communications, while purporting to be I statements, are really just other ways of saying, “You should” or “You are.” They are actually, then, “you statements,” which are a big no-no in difficult or heated conversations because they have a tendency to make everyone defensive and upset.

Will the Real I Statement Please Stand Up?
Simply put, a true feeling I statement should express your authentic feeling in a non-blaming way. Consider your emotional state of mind, find the right word to describe it, and then speak that description out loud.

As in, “I feel sad right now.” Easy, right?

You can even say, “I feel sad when you spend so much time at the office,” but notice the use of the word “when” as opposed to “because.” “Because” implies causation and, thus, blame. And when people feel blamed, they tend to stop listening to you.

I feel . . . ???
It’s okay to be uncertain about exactly what you are feeling. Feelings can be complicated. They can come in layers, or can change over time, even as you are speaking. But the complicated nature of feelings shouldn’t prevent you from using an I statement, because an I statement can express where you stand on things at any particular moment.

Just change the statement above to something like, “I think what I’m feeling is sadness,” or “Part of what I’m feeling is sadness,” or “What I’m feeling right now is sadness,” and there you go!

The True Power of the I Statement
Yes, using I statements will help us be calmer and more authentic communicators. But the true power of the feeling I statement is ultimately about how it reframes the situation in which we find ourselves in a way that reveals the choices we have.

Stay with me here.

Think about it this way. If we blame someone else for of our state of mind, if it is someone else’s fault that we feel the way we do, what hope do we have of changing or controlling, or choosing how to express these feelings? None. Nada. Zilch.

But if we acknowledge ownership of our feelings, we also acknowledge that we have the power to change and manage them. And acknowledging this power is the first step to actually feeling better.

So we can choose whether or not to feel angry when our teenager leaves her clothes on the floor. We can choose how to express our frustration at our mother for telling us how we should live our lives. And we can decide just how we want to handle feelings of sadness or loneliness that arise when our partner spends so much time at the office.

In short, I statements can help us communicate more effectively, not only with others, but also with ourselves.  And that is their real power.

So go on. Try it. How do you feel?

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

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Now it’s you’re turn. How have you rocked an I statement recently? Did it help you clarify your position, either to others or yourself? Tell us your story in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also enjoy Using An Upside-Down Map or There Is A First Time For Everything.

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The Importance Of Making Room

making roomLiving Alone
I have been alone a lot lately . . . And I kind of like it.

I like having the television and the remote all to myself. I like the kind of rockin’ good night’s sleep you get when you’re the only one in the bed. And I like the experience of getting dressed in the morning without bumping into someone when I reach for the toothpaste or head to the shower.

Basically, I like that I can do what I want, the way I want, and when I want to do it, without the need to consider someone else’s preferences. I am a rock. I am an island.

Okay, so I’m also a four-year-old. But it’s true, right? We all get annoyed by the multitude of accommodations demanded of us when we’re living in close proximity to others.

You know what I mean. With our partners, it’s their tendency to take over more than their share of the closet or forget to spray down the bathroom after a particularly long sit. With our children, it’s the socks on the floor, the lights left on in every room, and the relentlessness of their laundry needs. Even our pets demand accommodation and attention. Ever try to cook dinner without the family dog underfoot?

So having now experienced what it’s like to be in complete control of the daily events of my life, I really value the solitude. And I understand why some people get in the habit of preferring to live alone.

The problem is, when we get in the habit of living alone, it often means we have gotten out of the habit of making room for others.

making roomDogs Are Habit Forming
There are a couple of reasons why I tend to live a more solitary life these days. My children are both in college now, and attend schools far from our home. My husband, previously not one to travel a lot, now spends a great deal of his work time on the road.

And, sadly, our sweet dogs, Husker and Lizzie, both died this summer, each after an unexpected cascade of medical issues.

I am still getting used to living in a home without pets for the first time in 25 years. And I find the most surprising part of the adjustment process to be those moments when I happen to bump up against one of the small, almost unnoticeable ways we learned to tweak elements of our lives and home in order to accommodate the presence of our canine friends.

The same accommodations I used to gripe about on a regular basis when they were still with us. The ones we no longer have to make now that they are gone.

Like how we had to dispose of any trash that smelled or felt the least bit interesting to a dog into one of the three closed trash cans in the house so that a dog would not find it, ingest it and then – yes, you know what’s coming – pass it in an uncomfortable, messy and, often, expensive fashion. (Husker once sucked down and pooped out a whole tube sock before its owner even missed it.)

Or how our morning routine was, for 13 years, dictated by the need of the dogs to, after a long night, RELIEVE OURSELVES and EAT NOW, FOR THE LOVE OF PETE! Once a dog realized we were awake, the jig was up. Coffee, sex, the morning paper – all of these things had to wait until we took care of their urinary and gastrointestinal functions.

Turns out loved ones, even loved dogs, are habit-forming, and so the letting-go process is partly one of undoing old habits and forming new ones.

What I wouldn’t give to have Husker and Lizzie back and have to make room for their needs and foibles once again. Such a small price to pay, really, for their sweet companionship.

making roomSo Are Children
After 20+ years of cohabitation with our children, my husband and I both agree that the silence and simplicity of the empty nest feels luxurious. With only the two of us to accommodate, we now have the run of the place and can largely do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it.

But, each time we notice a freedom associated with our children’s absence, our delight is tempered by an awareness of the absence of their life-giving presence: my son’s wry humor, my daughter’s bright smile and quick laughter, and the myriad of intense conversations and hysterical musings we share with them when they are home.

And we suddenly can’t wait for winter break.

Okay, okay. If I’m honest, I have to admit that the novelty of living a more solitary life is wearing off. The silence and simplicity of an empty nest, while luxurious, is also, at times, absolutely deafening in that it reminds me of the absence of my loved ones.

And I have come to miss the consistency and comfort of the daily nuts and bolts of being in a relationship, the need to accommodate, adjust and make room. I even, sometimes, actually miss the socks on the floor and the stinky bathroom.

Because, when you get right down to it, the presence of these small annoyances means that I have love and companionship in the house. And my need to make room for these things is really a small price to pay for that blessing.

But even more important, I have realized that the effort of making room for others actually makes me a better person. It stretches out my growing edges, and challenges me to be more patient and flexible. And it reminds me that all of those small, annoying accommodations aren’t what’s really important here.

Here’s what’s important: being connected to others, loving people, and making room.

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What about you? Are you facing an empty nest or an empty backyard? How have you managed the freedoms and challenges of solitude? I hope you will share your thoughts and ideas in a comment below.

And if this post got you thinking, you might also like to read about Conquering Your Inner Toddler, Using An Upside-Down Map or Breaking Up.

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Using An Upside-Down Relationship Map

Mapping the World
Anyone with a fourth grade education knows that North is up and South is down, right? After all, when we travel from New York City to Rochester, NY, we go “upstate,” Alabama is in the “deep” South, and the area comprising the continental United States is referred to as the “Lower 48.” Easy, right?

Hmmm. Not so fast. What if North were down and South were up?

Stay with me here.

Because our earth is round, the challenge for a mapmaker attempting to draw a flat world map is how to accurately represent a round sphere on a flat surface. Due to the multiple judgment calls inherent in this challenge, it turns out that the work of cartography (mapmaking) is really more of an art than a science, and that a cartographer’s product, a flat map, is shaped as much by its creator’s perspective, goals and biases as by actual geography.

So, yes, North and South are up and down, but only because someone (specifically White Europeans) chose to both look at and represent the world in a certain way.

The Mercator Projection (below), the most common world map (you’ll remember it from 4th grade), was created in 1569 by Gerhardus Mercator, a Flemish mathematician and cartographer. Mercator’s goal in drawing this map was to create a tool to help European explorers and traders travel across oceans. To this end, he filled a rectangle with the surface of our spherical earth in such a way that he shrunk some of its details and magnified others, an orientation that resulted in many geographic distortions.

relationship map

The Mercator Projection Map

 

Take Greenland and Africa, for instance. On the Mercator map, these landmasses appear similar in size. In reality, the African continent is actually fourteen times larger than Greenland. Also, since Europe and North America are both distant from the equator, the distortions of the Mercator map make them appear proportionally much larger than they really are.

Why all the fuss about maps, you ask? Well, the perspective used to create a representation of our planet turns out to be really important on a lot of levels.

First, one of the more obvious problems of the Mercator map is that it perpetuates a geographically distorted view of what the world really looks like. And I don’t know about you, but it makes me a wee bit uncomfortable to think that the landmass I live on doesn’t look the way I’ve always thought it does.

But perhaps even more importantly, the European bias of this particular representation (Europe is placed in the center of the world and aligned in the top portion) reflects and favors the location of its European maker and thus has a tendency to encourage notions of Eurocentrism.

After all, the Far East is known as such only because it is far from the person who created the map, a Western European.

Moreover (and here’s where it gets really mind-blowing, people) there is no scientific logic requiring the area we know as the northern hemisphere to be placed on the top portion of a map. But when the northern hemisphere sits at the top and the southern hemisphere at the bottom, our tendency to adopt a ‘top and bottom’ attitude means we might view those at the top of the map (Europe, the United States, Russia) as superior to those at the bottom (Africa, South America, Australia).

The end result of all of this is that the Mercator map has both fostered and supported the common perception that European colonialists, researchers and scientists (and, by extension, all Anglo-Saxon descendants) are always at the center and top of things, not just geographically but also culturally, politically, aesthetically and so on. Because of this, the Mercator map is often seen as a symbol of how White Europeans have a tendency to “other” the rest of the world.

There Are Other Maps of the World
Yes, Virginia, it’s true. In an effort to encourage a more geographically accurate perspective of the world, as well as balance out some of the biases inherent in the perspectives of early maps, some cartographers, sociologists and historians are beginning to work with various alternative maps. The most popular of these maps is the Peters Projection Map, shown below.

relationship map

The Peters Projection Map

 

This map was drawn by Arno Peters, a German historian and cartographer, in 1974. Peters believes that, although his map still contains distortions, it is a far more realistic and accurate portrayal of the world. For instance, although Europe is still centralized on this map, its size (like the size of other countries) is much more in line with its actual size on the globe.

You might also notice that on this map Africa, now portrayed closer to its actual size, looks like a giant yellow amoeba that is about to swallow the European countries above it in one gulp. Kind of startling, right? CJ Cregg thinks so too, in this great West Wing clip.

As the clip shows, some cartographers have gone so far as to create what are known as upside-down maps. For an especially original example, I offer you McArther’s Universal Corrective Map, shown below. This map was drawn by Stuart McArthur, an Australian college student who, as a high school exchange student in Japan, was taunted (geographically bullied?) by students from the United States for being born in the “bottom of the world.” Published in 1979, McArther’s map was the first modern South-Up map. His projection obviously solves that pesky north-is-up/south-is-down problem, and does so with a dose of cheeky Aussie humor.

relationship map

McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map

 

Mapping in Relationships
So I’m thinking it is probably not possible to produce an absolutely accurate world map. Maps can never be fully objective, as they are always influenced by the perspective and interpretation of the cartographers who draw them. And, let’s face it, seeing one’s group (or self) at the center of things is a common human tendency.

I sometimes encourage a more self-centered perspective when I work with individuals in psychotherapy, because people who enter therapy have often lost their sense of self in some way. “How do you feel about this? What is your perspective? How can you get your needs met?” are all questions I hope will bring them back in touch with who they are, what they believe in, and what they want out of life.

But in my work with couples, when a dogged focus on the self often threatens to split a couple apart, I usually find myself encouraging just the opposite perspective, and I challenge both partners to imagine and use alternative maps.

Because, if you think about it, we are actually all cartographers of our relationship worlds. As we travel the geography of our relationships with important people in our lives, we create maps to help us understand and navigate them.

And, as is true for the mapmakers above, the products of our work – the maps of our relationships and the events that occur within them – are always imperfect representations that are limited by our own, biased perspectives. Because our experience and understanding of a relationship event, particularly one that involves a disagreement of some kind, evolves as much from the baggage we carry from our personal history as it does from what actually occurred at that particular moment in the room. As William Faulkner so wisely observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

An Upside-Down Relationship Map
So, like the Europeans, we are always in danger of “othering” our partners by assuming the superiority of our own feelings and priorities. We, too, need an upside-down map to remind us that we are not the center of the world.

The first step to creating this map is to remember that in every exchange we have with our partner, there are always two perspectives, two valid experiences of reality. We both get to be right.

The second step is to really listen to our partner and try to see things from their point of view so that we can understand their personal history, their perspectives, and their goals as just as valid as our own. This particular step is kind of hard for some people (myself included) because in order to really listen you also have to really shut up.

Third, we must work with our partner to compromise when we can in order to create workable alternative maps and solutions that, although still imperfect, take into account our sometimes-disparate perspectives, bring us closer together as human beings, and preserve our ever-changing relationship.

We need to create and work with an upside-down relationship map, maps that offer a window through which we can each really see and understand each other’s history, perspectives and values. Otherwise, we will tend, like many countries, to care more about who’s right than about how we can work things out so that we all win.

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Now, I know many of you have been working successfully with upside-down relationship maps for some time. Please take a moment to share your experience with us in a comment below, so that we can all benefit from your creativity!

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Is Breaking Up Really Hard To Do?

Or Is Staying Together Perhaps the Harder Thing?

breaking upOn a recent morning run through a local park, I encountered a young man talking – yelling and sobbing, really – into a cell phone pressed tightly to his ear.  He was so distraught that even in the open space of the park I actually heard him before I saw him: “How could you do this to me?,” “Fine, go ahead, be like everybody else!,” and every now and then a woman’s name. I heard the woman too, surprisingly clearly through the cell phone earpiece many feet away from me. She was also yelling, sounding as anguished and distraught as the young man. As the path of my run took me closer to the young man, I could hear more of his conversation, and see that his eyes were red and puffy, that he was sobbing as if his heart would break.  He was a mess. He was hurting.

They were breaking up.

Later that day, after I told my husband about this encounter, he and I thought back to the relationships we each had before we met each other, and we noticed the pattern. The new, exciting feelings of interest and attraction. The getting to know each other, learning each other’s history, dreams, quirks. Then the inevitable slide down to the break-up that, even in the best of circumstances, was messy and hurt someone.

Then . . . in our case, the relationship didn’t end. Hmm. Why was that, exactly?

We are fallible human beings, after all, and over the many years we have been together we have managed to let each other down on MANY occasions, sometimes spectacularly. We have fought, we have drawn apart, we have yelled in anger, we have sulked in silence. One time, early in our relationship, we even “took a break,” that lovely euphemism for “this relationship thing might be too hard for me.” But we never actually broke up.

We agree that it has seemed much of the time as if it is our relationship itself that has been the defining factor in our ability to stay together. You know the feeling, that THIS relationship is somehow special, that you have found your soul mate. We, too, have felt this way about our partnership, both early on and over the years as we have watched many friends lose the fight to hold on to their relationships over time.

Almost 30 years into the relationship, however, we have come to believe that on some level the success of the thing has been due not just to whom we stayed with, but to the simple fact that we stayed, we committed to remaining in the game, not only on those days we were exhilarated, when we felt like soul mates, but also on the sad days during which the relationship was difficult, when it was boring, when it seemed that going might be easier than staying.

Even on those days, we committed to the harder choice – not breaking up. And this commitment then informed the way we spoke and acted, such that we were able to reengage with each other in a more positive way and work out the problem before us. The commitment, then, made (and continues to make) all the difference.

Of course, not every relationship is a healthy one. There are circumstances under which two people should just not stay together (when there is ongoing abuse, for instance). And a commitment to stay together isn’t the only factor that helps a healthy relationship survive. Gentle communication, a desire to compromise, taking the time to really know each other’s values and dreams – we know all of these things are important. But none of these other efforts are even possible unless we take that first step, make that first commitment to not. break. up.

I don’t know what finally happened between that young man and his girlfriend. Clearly, this was one of their more difficult days as a couple, and it was going to take a lot of work, and perhaps more tears, for them to get past this crisis in their relationship. But, given their strong feelings for each other, I like to think they worked it out one more time.

I like to think that they considered breaking up, and then chose the other, harder, thing . . . and didn’t.

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

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