What is the most important ingredient of a successful relationship? Communication. Most of us have heard that this is the most essential piece of a healthy relationship, and indeed it seems to be.
However, when it comes to the ‘what and the how’ of communication, you and your partner may look at it differently. Chances are good that you each came into the relationship with different communication styles and years and years of experience using this style. There was no conversation about this, nor did your partner come with an instruction book. You just assumed it would work out and 'we will talk'. Your communication styles, which more than likely were learned as a child in your family of origin, can cause difficulty if not fully understood. The different styles sometimes do not work well together and can clash—causing hurt feelings, conflict and discord. An assertive communicator with an avoidant communicator pose obvious issues –match that same avoidant communicator with a brash communicator who struggles with boundaries—and you’ve got big trouble. I will describe these different styles in more detail in a future article, but this article will focus on a formula that will help, regardless of your styles—the formula is LISTEN EMPATHIZE VALIDATE then SHARE. (LEVS)
How many times have you been in a conversation or trying to share something with your partner when you realize that he/she is not listening? Or they keep interrupting you? Many times? A good listener can be hard to find. It also seems that most of us OVER-estimate how good a listener we are. Sometimes we may be assuming what our partner is saying and anxiously awaiting our turn to speak, rather than being truly present and listening. The delivery of verbal content is only part of communication, another part is feeling heard and understood. Even if the interrupter who says he ‘knows what she was going to say’ is correct in his assumption, it still damages the communication process and the relationship. Empathizing is seeking to understand what our partner is feeling as they are sharing information. Is this a sad story? Frustration? fear? happiness? Reflecting this feeling back to the speaker can be a powerful communication tool. It will make your partner feel understood. “That made you very angry” “ that’s a scary situation” , “ wow, what a great time” are all examples of reflecting the feeling back in an empathetic way.
Validation is letting the speaker know that you heard and understood what they are saying. Often, we do not verbally validate because we think ‘I heard what was said, I don’t have to prove it’. Well, the validation isn’t about you as the listener, it’s really for the speaker. They feel heard. This helps ease them and helps the communication and the feel of the relationship.
Let’s look at an example exchange. First, I will list a typical exchange without empathy and validation and then one with empathy and validation pointed out.
Mary is trying to tell Scott how she felt when he got angry and yelled at her when she asked him what he was doing on his computer.
Mary: I don’t understand why you were so mean when I asked you about what you were doing. I was just trying to see what you were doing and you bit my head off.
Scott: I didn’t bite your head off, I don’t care if you see what I’m doing
Mary: No, it’s not that, it's why did you have to get so angry and yell at me?
Scott: You know, there a lot of things you do that I have questions about but I don’t give you a hard time
Mary: I don’t understand. Why are you flipping it on me?
Scott: I’m not flipping it on you. It’s not like I went off and started throwing things, you think I’m some sort of monster
Mary: no I don’t, well only when you are acting like one
Scott: See, I knew you did, forget it ……Unbelievable, this conversation is over
Now let’s look go through it again, pointing out the trigger points and inserting empathy and validation.
1.Mary: I don’t understand why you were so mean when I asked you about what you were doing. I was just trying to see what you were doing and you bit my head off.
SAYING SCOTT WAS MEAN IS A PERSONAL NEGATIVE LABEL SHE IS PLACING ON HIM, MAKING IT LIKELY HE WILL RESPOND DEFENSIVELY. BIT MY HEAD OFF PAINTS A EXAGGERATED NEGATIVE IMAGE AND WILL ALSO CAUSE DEFENSIVENESS. Try instead:
“I don’t understand why you reacted angrily when I asked what you were doing. I was just trying to see what you were doing. Your reaction hurt me.’
2. Scott: I didn’t bite your head off, I don’t care if you see what I’m doing
SCOTT RESPONDS TO THE EXAGGERATED PART OF THE STATEMENT WHICH IS LEAST IMPORTANT TO MARY, BUT BECAUSE IT IS PERSONAL AND EXAGGERATED, IT DRAWS THE MOST ATTENTION. HE THEN DEFENDS HIMSELF.
IN THE NEW APPROACH, HIS ATTENTION WILL BE DRAWN TO MARY’S HURT. HE WILL BE MORE LIKELY TO ACKNOWLEDGE HIS REACTION IN AN EFFORT TO HELP HER
HE CAN BE EMPATHETIC IN HIS RESPONSE : ‘my reaction hurt you? I’m sorry, that was not my intention’ and acknowledge ‘I guess I did get a little upset, because I thought you were going to criticize me’
3. Mary: No, it’s not that, it's why did you have to get so angry and yell at me?
THIS STATEMENT, WHICH IS FINE IN CONTENT, IS A CLARIFICATION. IT IS UNECESSARY IF THE SECOND APPROACH IS USED.
INSTEAD, SHE CAN RESPOND EMPATHETICALLY AND VALIDATE WHAT SCOTT SAID:
“ I hear you saying you didn’t mean to hurt me, I believe you, and your apology is greatly appreciated (because that lets me know that you realize there was negative impact on me regardless of your intention)
4. Scott: You know, there are a lot of things you do that I have question about but I don’t give you a hard time.
SCOTT TURNS THE ARGUMENT BACK ON MARY IN A DEFENSIVE WAY. TRY NOT TO COMPARE ANY CURRENT SITUATION TO A PAST SITUATION DURING AN ARGUMENT. WE THINK WE ARE MAKING A GOOD STATEMENT ABOUT FAIRNESS OR TRYING TO MAKE OUR PARTNER LESS UPSET. IT NEVER WORKS, DOES IT? ADDRESS THE ISSUE AT HAND ASSERTIVELY. IF YOU HAVE A SIMILAR ISSUE WITH THEM, BRING IT UP LATER IN A NEW DISCUSSION.
5. Mary: I don’t understand. Why are you flipping it on me
THE COUPLE THEN BEGIN TO TALK ABOUT AN ISSUE OTHER THAN THE TOPIC AT HAND: THE FLIPPING OF THE ISSUE. IN EFFECT, WHAT SCOTT HAS INTRODUCED AS DEFENSIVE DIVERSION, THEN BECOMES THE TOPIC AT HAND, GETTING THEM FURTHER AWAY FROM RESOLUTION.
6. Scott: I’m not flipping it on you. It’s not like I went off and started throwing things, you think I’m some sort of monster
SCOTT HAS REALLY PERSONALIZED THE STATEMENTS AND IS NOW ARGUING FROM A PLACE OF SHAME WITHIN HIM, FIGHTING NOT TO BE SEEN AS A MONSTER. SOMETHING THAT MARY NEVER SAW HIM AS.
7. Mary: no I don’t, well only when you are acting like one
MARY IS SO FRUSTRATED WITH SCOTT BY THIS POINT, THAT SHE VALIDATES HIS MONSTER COMMENT EVEN THOUGH SHE NEVER THOUGHT OF HIM AS A MONSTER
8. Scott: See, I knew you did, forget it ……Unbelievable, this conversation is over
SCOTT IS NOW COMPLETELY FLOODED AND FEELING SHAME AND HAS TO END THE ARGUMENT.
As you can see, in the initial conversation, we are at step 8. In the repair conversation, it not only goes more successfully but takes ½ as many steps.
Final take-aways for using LEVS (LISTENING, EMPATHIZING, VALIDATING and then SPEAKING your thoughts:
1. YOU WANT TO BE HEARD AND UNDERSTOOD, SO YOU MUST LISTEN AND SEEK UNDERSTANDING
2. YOU NEED A RULE OR FORMULA YOU BOTH KNOW ABOUT AND AGREE UPON
3. LISTEN, EMPATHISIZE. VALIDATE THEN SHARE IS ONE SUCH FORMULA THAT WORKS
4. CONSISTENTLY UTILIZING THIS TOOL WILL IMPROVE COMMUNICATION, DECREASE CONFLICT AND HURT FEELINGS, AND IMPROVE THE HARMONY OF YOUR RELATIONSHIP
Here are a few of my favorite relationship books. They are definitely worth a read.
With 25 years of experience working with couples as a licensed clinical counselor, Tim O'Donohue lays out an effective plan to get 100% back in your relationship.
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