recently heard a statistic that suggested that approximately 90% of the thoughts we have are not new–in other words, we’re re-thinking the same old thoughts most of the time. We tell ourselves familiar stories about ourselves or others, ruminate on the same old hurts, wishes or worries, obsess about our to do list, but are we thinking something new that might be useful?
Often, we don’t even realize that we’re running through the same thoughts (about ourselves, about others). It might be your to do list, your regrets about the past, your fantasies or fears regarding the future, your disappointments in how others have behaved, but it’s likely that you have some thoughts and beliefs that run through your head regularly.
One of the most useful gifts that therapy can provide is to help people have new thoughts about their struggles. By asking thoughtful questions and creating an open, exploratory attitude together, we can begin to look at things in a different way, which may lead to different thoughts or understandings, which can than lead to different behaviors or feelings in response to the same experiences.
Similarly, in relationships, we often have old thoughts about the other person: what their motivations might be, how they feel about us, how important we are to them, etc. These beliefs are often generalized, not flattering, and without nuance. In addition, these beliefs are sometimes inaccurate. One of the most useful things we can do in relationship is to check out those beliefs. We do this a lot in couples’ therapy, and I’ve found it to be such a useful process that I want to share some of the steps with you, in case you want to try them home.
I’ll try to show you how it would work with examples, but of course, each couple is different, and my style of language may not match yours. Try to make it as authentic and real as possible, and use this process as a framework, not a literal script.
As our example, let’s say you have a belief that your spouse doesn’t care about your needs. You might be able to cite copious evidence to that effect. But have you checked it out? You might find out something that surprises you.
Before you ask, it’s important to ask in a way that opens up dialogue and exploration, which is hard to do when we feel hurt or judged or angry. Here are some guidelines to help you communicate when emotion might be high:
1. Name the behavior as though you were an unbiased observer. Do not add any inferences about the reasons or motivations behind the behavior.
Example “It seems like you’re often late coming home from work, even on nights when I have to go out.”
2. Describe the feelings that you have as a result. Do not tell them what you think they are feeling. Do not use it as a back-door way to insult them- “I feel like you are a jerk” is not a feeling.
Example: “I feel frustrated and angry when I have to be late for my engagements when you are late coming home.”
3. Open up to them with curiosity and openness to their experience of the situation. It can be really hard to offer this opening when you don’t feel open, but see if you can take a deep breath and try.
Examples: “I wonder what your side of the story is?” “What’s going on for you on those nights?”
You might notice that I didn’t suggest anything related to problem solving here. Most of my clients are very smart and thoughtful people–when the problem is clear, the solutions typically come easily. It’s tempting to try to rush to solutions, but the place where real change and progress can happen is in understanding each other.
Take your time. I’ll say that again, because it’s so important. Take your time. When you partner shares his or her feelings, listen carefully. Your job at this moment is to try to understand his or her point of view. You will have your turn to present your responses later, but for now, you are just trying to really understand his or her perspective. We can assume that very few people wake up in the morning thinking, “I wonder how I can hurt and shame those around me,” so let’s find out what is going on for your partner.
Once you’ve heard your partner’s point of view, try to say it back to him or her, to confirm understanding. If you’re not sure, you can ask clarifying questionsonly. Example: “I’m not sure if I have it all–I understood that you said that you find coming home to the noise and mess stressful, but I think you also said something about your fears about how I might be when you got home. Can you say more about that?”
Then, once you think you really understand, try to state your understanding as clearly and non-defensively as possible. Example: “I think you said you’re feeling really stressed out at work, and you feel so overwhelmed by the pressure there that you can’t think about anything else. Did I get it?”
As a final step, if you can, try to imagine what your partner is going through. What would you feel like in your partner’s situation? What might he or she be feeling right now? You can add that to your communications if it’s possible. Example: “Wow, so if I were in your shoes, I think I’d be feeling pressured and overwhelmed. That must be so hard.”
My clients tell me that they are often very surprised to learn what is going on for their partners-understanding the real feelings behind the behavior can generate empathy and compassion and decrease hurt and anger. The client who has been listened to often learns something new about him or herself, and also usually feels a new connection to the partner who has been listening and showing interest and care.
Then, and only then, is the opportunity for the listener to respond. You might find that all the things you had been saving up to say don’t feel quite as important any more. You might find that you have something different than you planned to say, so try to be as open and curious with your own thoughts as you have been with your partner.
If you’re able to follow these steps, I think you might be delightedly surprised at the new and different conversations and understandings that may emerge. Putting your defenses and strongly held perceptions to the side can be really hard-doing something new is usually hard. But if thinking the old thoughts and beliefs hasn’t yielded the outcome you like, try to discover something new, and see how that changes things.
And as always, let me know how it goes!