Open hearted communication

UNIVERSE WITHIN by Gwen Randall-Young

 

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication. 
– Stephen Covey

Imagine a kindergarten class about to have “show and tell.” Every student in the class has a hand up, waving excitedly because each wants to go first. When one finally goes first, a few pay attention, but many are thinking about what they will say when it is their turn. Others are just waiting for the speaker to finish so they can raise their hand quickly and maybe be the lucky one to go next.

When the speaker is done and the teacher tells the class they may now ask questions of the speaker, invariably some students will ignore what the speaker said and rather than ask a question, they simply tell a story of their own. Basically, everyone wants to talk and no one wants to listen. After all, this is kindergarten and children that age are expected to be ego-driven.

Ironically, however, many adult conversations, especially disagreements, seem to be conducted much like our kindergarten students. Each person is arguing their point or position. Rather than really listening to the other or having a real conversation, the discussion is a battle to try to get the other to see things their way and change their mind. No wonder so many couples say they have communication problems.

The word “communication” comes from the root “commune,” which means to be in a state of intimate, heightened sensitivity and receptivity. This would imply a level of closeness and being very open and sensitive not only to the words, but to the intent and the feelings of the other. Being receptive is defined as: able or inclined to receive; especially: open and responsive to ideas, impressions or suggestions.

To truly communicate, we would need to be both sensitive and receptive to the other person. I would suggest that sensitivity and receptivity are higher-level qualities that need to be developed. Indeed, as in our kindergarten example, when very young children like what is happening and things are going their way, it is good. If not, it is bad. Their inner ego-response becomes their compass for assessing where they are in their world.

Of course, this also describes the ego energy often carried into adulthood. Growing up is not synonymous with being evolved. We live in an ego-based culture and one really does need to transcend the values and ways of the culture and often the family of origin to move forward.

We call people heroes when they go out of their way and perhaps even face danger to help another. Mother Teresa, for example, was a model of compassion and unconditional love.

There are countless less famous people who spend their lives listening, learning and understanding the needs of those who are suffering. To my mind, these are people with very open hearts. There is no ego involved here. They only want to help and they desire no recognition.

It is hard to talk to someone who is not open hearted about sensitivity and receptivity. Having meaningful, positive communication is not so much about how we talk, as who we are. For communication to be different, we need to be different. It is not about changing the other person, but striving to change ourselves.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and psychotherapist in private practice. For more of Gwen’s articles and information about her books, Self Care CDs and the new Creating Healthy Relationships series, visit www.gwen.ca. See display ad this issue.

The perfect relationship

by Devrah Lavall

A very wise meditation master once said, “The greatest suffering in the human form is that we are not seen as already perfect and divine.”

I’ve recently spoken with many people, all from very different cultures, who feel that they can no longer bear the conflict and pressure in their relationships. Such complaints are reflected in our divorce rates, which are unprecedented, and they beg the question “What is the real purpose of relationships?” Many people are coming to recognize that relationships based on externals such as sex or power or just not wanting to be alone, are like houses built on shifting sand. They won’t hold up when the waves and the storms come. The delirium of romance can be intoxicating, but once the honeymoon stage has passed, unless we deepen our connection to the real essence of Union, we will only flit to other partners, never experiencing the deep rewards arising from relationships based on true love.

The turmoil of personal relationships is exacerbated by stress arising from the acceleration of time and the proliferation of technology and is reflected in the violence and wars in the world, and in the destruction of our planet. The Hindu scriptures speak about this age as Kali Yuga – the dark age of man or the age of quarrel and confusion. At such a time, all of our ego tendencies are amplified, which is problematic on one hand, but also poses a unique opportunity for our souls to evolve more rapidly than they would otherwise. Just as coal, when subjected to intense heat and pressure, can become a diamond, the human being, subjected to the intensity of Kali Yuga, can become one with the God Self, which is the true source of relationships.

Our soul work starts with the ones we love, the ones who know our deepest secrets and our worst fears. These close relationships are the primary stepping stones to learning how to love unconditionally. But bringing love and compassion to one another in these dark times is more easily said than done. Our insecurities, disappointments or expectations that the other person is responsible for our happiness can get in the way. No wonder we want to run from or push away the relationships that most strongly reflect our darkness.

Just as Kali Yuga is an opportunity for the individual soul to evolve, it is also an opportunity for our relationships to evolve as we learn to embrace one another and to have compassion for the human foibles we all share. Those who have been in long-term relationships know the rage, hatred and disconnection that can arise as we mirror each other’s deepest pain. How can we bridge such separation? How can we become one with those we love? How can we transcend the endless conflicts about finances, domestic routines and intimacy issues, never mind the cultural, religious and political disagreements that create even more reasons for us to push one another out of our hearts? Communicating our feelings about these things may not necessarily help if they are not shared in an openhearted way, or if the other is not ready to hear what we have to say.

Perhaps we can take our cue from the 13th century mystical poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, who said, “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” This applies to our hearts as well as our physical surroundings. It expresses the “perfect” relationship to others and to life itself. When we can be the soul of the relationship we are in, when we can remember that this person whom we might be upset with just wants to be seen through the eyes of love, we can change the lens through which we are looking. Instead of seeing only the problems and accompanying flaws in the other, we can see their inherent innocence and divinity.

We can often shift out of our dissatisfactions in relationships when we focus on what we are grateful for rather than on what is lacking. When we focus on our complaints, we will reinforce others’ shortcomings, but when we focus on love, gratitude and forgiveness, we empower the other. This applies not only to our personal relationships but to our world as well.

Another practice that helps transcend blame and hatred in relationships is to ask ourselves this question: “What part of me is he or she expressing right now?” This is an effective way to own the deficiencies we so often project onto others. None of us is free from darkness. This contemplation can help us develop compassion and love for the other because it reminds us of our own foibles.

Where there is love there is no ego. When we make our love stronger than our greed, we will be able to protect each other as well as our Earth. When we make our love stronger than our judgements, we will listen to and understand the unique beauty and intelligence in others. When we make our love stronger than our pride, we will see God in everyone, even our enemies. When we make our love stronger than our criticism, we won’t sweat the small stuff. When we make our love stronger than our doubt, we will never feel alone. We will have a constant relationship with the Perfect One, who knows our every thought, word and deed and is closer than our own breath. Every day, we will see the whole world and each person in it as a part of us and we will experience the sheer joy of being in the most perfect relationship of all.

Devrah Laval is author of The Magic Doorway Into the Divine. She is a spiritual counsellor and has facilitated groups and workshops for over 25 years. www.themagicdoorway.com

You and your words

by Dr. Henry Cloud

Have you ever heard yourself say, “Whatever possessed me to say yes to this in the first place? Why didn’t I just say no?” Or, after negotiating a deal, have you ever thought, “Why didn’t I ask for –––––––? I could kick myself!” If you have, that is pretty normal or at least common. However, if it happens often, it is also a problem. It reveals that sometimes you and your words are not on the same page. You desire one outcome, but your words take you to a different one.

Dr. Henry Cloud
Dr. Henry Cloud (photo by Russell Baer Photography)

So we are going to look at the words that have to do with why you find yourself in certain situations more than you might think. We are going to examine your relationship to some key words, including how you feel about them and how free you are to use them, or not. Before we dive into looking at specific words and phrases, it’s important to understand how certain words become embedded, or internalized, in our lives.

Internalizations and pattern

One would think that when you say yes or no to something, your answer is based on the merits of what you want to choose. When you want to grant a request, buy a product, agree to a price, take an assignment or go to lunch with someone, you say yes. If not, you say no. But, in reality, that is not what always happens. Sometimes, you may be on autopilot and have less choice in your response than you may think. Think about people you know or even yourself. Have you noticed that there are people who routinely find themselves in some situation they do not want to be in? Inevitably, they land in some activity, relationship, scheduling conflict or problem they did not want. The reason is not that they failed to just say no once or twice. They basically never say no. Their choices are rarely about what they want or don’t want in a particular situation, but usually about their relationship with the word “no” itself. They are conflicted about the word at a very deep level. They reach down there in hopes of finding “no,” but it eludes them.

Or think of the person on your team you know you cannot send out to do that negotiation. When you need someone who can go into a meeting, ask for the moon, and expect to get it, this is the last person you’d call on. They just are the kind of people who never ask for what they want. For some reason, they can’t pull the trigger. As a result, they rarely get out of life what they desire, and oftentimes they don’t even get what they need. They get only what comes their way and nothing more. Then you know other people who go into a meeting, ask for the moon, and get it. You exclaim, “How did you get them to agree to that?” And they answer, “I just asked for it, and they said fine.”

The difference is not that one person wants or needs the outcome any more or less than the other. In fact, often the person who needs something the most is the one who finds it most difficult to ask. The real difference is that some people have a longstanding relationship with certain words that renders saying them virtually impossible. The result of not saying those words when we need to, or saying them when we don’t, is that our lives become fragmented and scattered – a far cry from the integrated one life we all want. Then we are truly out of control. I know one CEO of a tech company who says “I will” almost as if it were part of his breathing. When something needs to be done, he is ever ready and just says, “Sure, I’ll do that.” He doesn’t even think about it, until one of two things happens – either he finds himself way overcommitted and doesn’t know how it happened or someone is frustrated at his lack of follow-through.

Take the words “I think,” for example. I was working with a team of VPs, helping them to develop a team dynamic that was safer and more creative and risk taking. One of the VPs, Dennis, was particularly gifted, but he seemed to keep his ideas to himself in meetings, especially when Steve, the president, was in the room. I knew a lot about the deals they were working on and I was aware that there were a lot of times that Dennis knew more about them than the president. Yet he never spoke up to say what he thought.

I brought it up with the two of them together. I asked Dennis why there were times when he didn’t say what he was thinking. I knew it was safe to do that with me in the room, as Steve had brought me in to develop that kind of team. If the president had a problem with others speaking their minds, he would be indicting himself and I wanted that to happen with me there, not some other time when he would not be forced to see that he was the problem.

When I asked Dennis why he never spoke up, he froze and instantly, without realizing it, looked at Steve. “Why are you looking at him?” I asked. “Well, uh, I don’t know. I was just thinking,” he said. “Let me guess,” I said. “The reason you don’t say what you are thinking sometimes is that you are not sure how it is going to go down with Steve if you disagree with him. Is that right?” I asked. “Well, maybe. I mean, he is the president of the company. It’s his place to do what he wants,” he said. I turned to the president and asked, “Steve, is that what you pay him for? To just nod at whatever you think? Or do you want to know things that you might disagree with?” “Of course I want to know,” he said to Dennis. “Why do you think I brought you on? You have great experience in these areas that I know little about, and I need you to speak up. I am not going to shoot you.”

From there, we got into a great discussion and found out some important things. One was that Steve really did want to know when others disagreed, but he sometimes was unaware of how the ways he pushed back were intimidating to others. Steve had to recognize that while as a leader he desired honesty from his people, some of his behaviors made it difficult for them to be honest with him – the classic “say-do” gap.

We learned something else that was huge for Dennis and for the team. He realized that his fear of speaking his mind did not begin with Steve. Dennis had grown up with a military father who did not like dissenting voices in the house and ran the family like a combat platoon, handing out orders that were not to be questioned. Early on, Dennis learned to keep his thoughts to himself around authority figures. He developed a conflicted relationship with the words “I think.” In the face of an authority figure, he kept those words to himself and just nodded. It was automatic response. He talked about this in one team meeting and it was big for him.

This is not to say that there are no situations in which it would be wise to keep one’s mouth shut. In fact, that is yet another reason why this issue is so important. In contrast to Dennis, there are others who were not compliant to an authoritarian parent, and, instead, felt like they had to speak up to them no matter what the consequences. They could not keep quiet, no matter how much trouble it got them into. This is just as much an autopilot behavior as the opposite problem and both represent a loss of freedom.

If you had bad experiences when you spoke your mind, you developed a pattern of keeping silent rather than speaking up. If dissenting opinions resulted in a slap to the face or a loss of affection, you kept silent. And you still do – without thinking. It is now automatic. But, if speaking up were rewarded, then you do it well now, too. It all depends on your past experience, until you have new experiences that change the pattern.

I once worked with a leader who found himself granting more and more policy exceptions than he felt comfortable with to one of his direct reports. This employee always seemed to have special circumstances or a reason he felt he needed to be given more flexibility than company policy allowed. When I challenged the leader to look at it, he realized something. Although what he was doing did not make business sense, he was doing what he had gotten used to doing with a similar kind of person in his family – a brother who always seemed to need some kind of special treatment. Agreeing to requests for special treatment was automatic. So the thought of saying no never even occurred to him. He was just programmed that way.

Another executive I worked with had no difficulty asking for what she wanted for her company in negotiating contracts, making sales and doing their business. For her, the words “I want,” when speaking on behalf of the company, came freely and easily. But trying to utter those same words for herself was an entirely different matter. She was not nearly as free to say “I want” to her boss when negotiating her own contract or to her team when expressing her preferences about which part of the project she wanted to do.

When I brought up the discrepancy to her, it blindsided her.

She had grown up in a family where serving and giving were very high values, which is obviously good. It trained her to stand up for people, to ask on behalf of others and to use her power to get for others what they could not get for themselves. It had a moral high ground. But that same environment also taught her that wanting something for oneself is “selfish, prideful and self-centered.” She learned early that selfishness was one of the greatest of evils. But, as it was defined for her, it included not only the “I want it all for me” kind of selfishness we all deplore, but also the idea that wanting anything for yourself is bad. So her relationship with the words “I want” was one that prompted an internal tongue lashing if she ever got close to uttering them. She felt guilty for wanting such a thing and felt she should be thinking about others and not herself. Understandably, she developed a pattern of not asking for things for herself.

The takeaway here is twofold. First, you may have a pattern with certain words that you have never noticed and that pattern is the reason you find yourself in unwanted situations. Second, that pattern was learned in experiences that have been engraved in you and have made their mark. They are now a part of the way you automatically operate. It is time to become aware of your autopilot behaviors and get your hands back on the wheel of your words and your choices. You would do well to see where you learned not to say what you want or think or will or won’t do. There were probably good reasons you did that, but it is time to realize that those days are over and what might have served you well then is not helping you now.

From the book The One-Life Solution: Reclaim Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success by Dr. Henry Cloud. Copyright © 2008 by Dr. Henry Cloud. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The One-Life Solution is available through www.harpercollins.com/books/The-One-Life-Solution

How to talk to be heard

by Claire Maisonneuve

“He makes me so mad. She drives me crazy. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells. I’m so afraid around him. I feel so insecure around her.” Sound familiar?

When Suzie suggests to Roger ways to load the dishwasher, he smiles at her and feels amused, but when Lisa makes the same suggestion to Frank, he gets angry and makes a sarcastic remark.

When Trudy gets on a plane, she starts to feel afraid and panicky, while Charles, sitting next to her, feels relaxed, calm and excited to be getting away from it all.

Same scenario, different reactions. But what makes us feel the way we do? People, situations or events? The answer is none of them. Think of it this way. If circumstances, including what people do or say, create the way we feel, theoretically, everyone should have the same reaction in the same situation. But as the example above illustrates, that is not so. Why? Because between what you see and hear and the feeling that’s arising, another intermediate process is also happening at a blindingly fast speed: the story you tell yourself about what you just heard and saw.

This story is comprised of your interpretation, evaluation, judgments, assessment and the meaning you give to what you just heard or saw. It includes the why, how and what: the motive (why she said that), the judgment, (how that’s good or bad) and the meaning (what it means about me and what I am expected do). For example, Frank’s story might be: “Lisa is just trying to control me by telling me how and who I should be so she doesn’t think I’m capable.” Whereas, Roger’s story might be: “That’s just Suzie and this is important to her so I’ll listen.”

Once the story has run through your mind, it is immediately followed by a feeling. Feelings manifest as sensations in your body and a shift in your breathing. For example, when angry, Frank may have felt his throat tightening, his blood pressure rising, his heart pounding and the rate of his breathing speed up.

Feelings don’t just come out of nowhere. They are not thrust upon you by others or events. They get triggered from your thinking. How you interpret events is based on your core beliefs – beliefs that are fundamental convictions or assumptions you hold about yourself, the world and other people. Core beliefs are so fundamental to our identity that we almost never question them. We simply take them for granted. Some of our core beliefs are very conscious and we hear them in our heads daily. But others can be quite subconscious and we can only become aware of them through introspection.

We all hold both positive and negative core beliefs. Positive core beliefs about oneself might sound like, “I am worthy, competent, capable, good enough, lovable and deserving of success. I can trust my decisions. I can take care of myself.” Beliefs about the world might include: “The world is a place filled with opportunities. Everything tends to work out in the end. The sky is the limit.” Beliefs about others might be: “People are friendly and helpful. I can count on others. People will respect me. People are basically good.”

On the other hand, negative core beliefs might sound like: “I’m not good enough. I’m unworthy and I don’t deserve to have what I truly want. There is something wrong with me. My opinions don’t matter. My needs are not important.” Core beliefs about others might include: “I can’t trust anyone. No one else really cares in the end. No one will stay forever. I can’t depend on anyone else. I need to do everything myself.” Those about the world might be: “Life is a struggle. You always have to work hard to get what you want. I have to always be on guard. The other shoe can drop at any time. The world is a dangerous place.”

Whether positive or negative, your core beliefs will dictate the type of story you tell yourself. For example, Frank’s core beliefs might sound like: “I’m not good enough as I am. I can’t trust myself.” So when he hears Lisa’s comment, he might take it as a personal assault. Roger’s core beliefs, on the other hand, might be more along the lines of: “I can trust myself to say no when I need to and I know I am competent” so he doesn’t take Suzie’s comments personally or interpret her motives as anything negative towards him.

Core beliefs are entirely a product of your upbringing. While you may have been born with a tendency to think the glass is half empty or half full, you aren’t born with these beliefs. Instead, the cumulation of your emotional and physical experiences during the earliest months and years of your life leads to the formation of your core beliefs. These experiences may include 1) The circumstances around your birth: was your birth planned? Were you wanted? Were you the gender your parents desired? 2) The political and cultural climate you grew up in; the family atmosphere, including whether there was safety and consistency or unpredictability, alcoholism, or early losses. 3) The messages you received from your parents about yourself, such as, “You can do anything you want. You are special. What’s wrong with you? Children are to be seen and not heard.”

So much has shaped how you think it’s no surprise that some people may push your buttons. But who owns the buttons? And how does all this help you communicate and be heard?

The first step toward making sure you talk in a way that won’t offend or turn someone off and allow yourself to be heard instead is to be aware of and accountable for your story. Owning your story doesn’t mean discounting it or not talking about it. It simply means being willing to question it, explore it and talk about it in a responsible and respectful way with another. So often what you assume someone is thinking about you is actually what you believe about yourself. Otherwise, how else could you come up with that thought?

When you own your story, you realize that your feelings are not to be taken as the final and accurate truth upon which to base your reactions. Rather, recognizing that your emotions are a product of your interpretations will also allow you to master your emotions instead of being held hostage by them. It will help you to see your choices. Otherwise, if you believe, as many do, that your feelings result from circumstances or from what others do, you will feel like a victim.

Claire Maisonneuve is the director of the Alpine Anxiety and Stress Relief Clinic in Vancouver. www.anxietyandstressrelief.com

photo © Micropix | Dreamstime.com

Four myths about marriage

by Claire Maisonneuve

photo © Waldemar Dabrowski | Dreamstime.com

Myth #1: Resolving your conflicts is the key to a happy marriage.

Unfortunately not, since most marital arguments can never be resolved! After 30 years of research on what makes marriage work, psychologist John Gottman reveals that, in all marriages, happy or unhappy, 67 percent of all problems are never resolved.

All marital conflicts fall into two categories: either they are ‘solvable’ and can be resolved or they are ‘perpetual,’ which means they will be part of your relationship in some way or another forever.

The reason for this is that most perpetual conflicts are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality or values. Rather than trying to change each other on these issues, happy couples learn to understand what those differences mean to each other and learn to live with them. In happy marriages, partners keep acknowledging the problems and are willing to continue dialoguing about them in ways that are respectful and honouring.

Perpetual conflicts can include issues related to differences in religious convictions, the frequency of sexual desire, the need to have the house tidy and the desire to have kids or not.

In unhappy marriages, spouses get entrenched in their position on the matter, become unwilling to budge and don’t care to try and understand each other’s point of view. It’s as if their position on the matter becomes more important than their partner’s feelings and wellbeing. Couples become gridlocked and this can lead to emotional disengagement.

Effective conflict resolution skills won’t do much if you feel contempt and resentment towards each other. Gottman’s research reveals that what’s most important is not simply how you handle your disagreements, but how you are with each other when you’re not fighting.

The key is that partners need to feel like they are accepted for who they are and have a fundamental sense of fondness and admiration for each other.

Myth #2: Problems of sexual desire or other sexual difficulties means there is something wrong with your marriage or that you’re falling out of love.

According to David Schnarch, expert sex therapist, every couple will have some sexual problem at some point in their marriage. Sexual problems are normal and so is their impact. The problem is that most couples don’t understand what’s happening to them. They may find it hard to talk about their sexual difficulties or not even know what to say about them, let alone admit they are having problems with sex.

Resolving sexual difficulties is more than just new positions and techniques. It requires looking at the ways you and your partner operate in your emotional relationship. As Schnarch describes it, our genitals are connected to who we are and so healing sexual difficulties requires a personal look into our anxieties, insecurities, disappointments, resentments and needs for autonomy and dependency.

Our sexuality is directly related to a complex set of beliefs and feelings about ourselves and the other. In his book Resurrecting Sex, Schnarch quotes three simple truths about sexual problems:

There are often no simple answers or solutions.

You don’t need easy or simple solutions; you just need solutions that really work.

A solution that’s an emotional stretch for you and your partner is often the best solution to your problem.

Unfortunately, sexual difficulties can lead to divorce or emotional alienation. On the other hand, the commitment to resolving these issues can open a doorway to a better way of being and greater self-respect and also take your relationship to new heights of maturity and partnership.

Myth #3: Affairs are the major cause of divorce.

A large survey of divorced men and women, conducted by Gigy and Kelly in a study entitled the “California Divorce Mediation Project,” reported that the major cause of divorce (80 percent of the time) is that partners became emotionally distant, lost a sense of closeness and drifted apart. Only 20 to 27 percent of couples said an extramarital affair was even partially to blame for their divorce.

When a marriage is in trouble or en route to divorce, it makes people vulnerable and causes them to look for intimate connections outside of the marriage. People look to others for what they feel they are not getting in their own marriage, including understanding, attention, caring and support. Hence, an affair is generally a symptom of a troubled marriage. In hindsight, divorced people often recognize that they took their spouse and their relationship for granted. They didn’t recognize its value until it was too late.

Myth #4: Children will solidify your marriage.

Studies have shown that one of the major causes of marital dissatisfaction and eventual divorce is the birth of the first baby. A longitudinal survey of 130 newlywed couples, followed over eight years by John Gottman, revealed 67 percent of couples underwent a precipitous drop in marital satisfaction the first time they became parents.

However, Gottman’s survey also revealed the other 33 percent did not experience this drop; in fact, half of them even reported that their marriage had never been better. What is the secret to this transition? According to Gottman, what separates these couples has little to do with lack of sleep, feeling overwhelmed, juggling motherhood with a career, lack of time for oneself or a colicky baby. Rather, it has to do with whether or not the husband experiences and participates in this transformation to parenthood along with his wife – or he gets left behind.

Indeed, a husband may find it difficult to keep up with the changes that his wife goes through during this period. He may feel abandoned by his wife and deprived by the baby’s overwhelming and seemingly endless need for mother and he may begin to withdraw. On the other hand, mother may sometimes find it difficult to include father in the care of the baby (casting herself as the only expert) or in acknowledging the loss felt by her husband.

The quality of a couple’s friendship before the birth, the husband’s ability to enter into and participate in this new dynamic and mother’s invitation and understanding will all determine if the marriage thrives or suffers.

While the happily-ever-after scenario presented in fairy tales and movies may seem attractive, buying into myths about marriage can create unrealistic expectations and lead to disappointment, confusion and alienation. If you can learn to separate the truth from the Hollywood fiction, you can recognize a positive relationship when you have one and avoid sabotaging an otherwise good partnership.

Claire Maisonneuve is a registered clinical counsellor with a Master’s degree in counselling psychology and the director of the Alpine Anxiety & Stress Relief Clinic in Vancouver. For the last 19 years, she has specialized in working with individuals and couples. 3126 W. Broadway, 604-732-3930,

www.AnxietyAndStressRelief.com