She is in the kitchen cooking. His parents are expected in an hour, and she is starting to feel stressed that things aren’t ready yet. She asks her partner to set the table. In the past, he has experienced being laughed at and judged for how he has set the table, and he is not keen on experiencing this judgment again. He is also just finishing an e-mail, so he can relax when the guests arrive.
He says, “It’s too early to set the table now. Why are you always making such a big fuss about setting the table? And why are you so stressed about having my parents over? I’ll do it when they get here.” She replies, “Why can you never do what I ask you? I am slaving away in the kitchen, and you are doing nothing. Now I also have to set the table. You never bother setting the table properly anyways…” And the couple is “off and running” with judgments and criticism instead of having productive conversations.
When we are communicating with our partner—or our children, for that matter—and we have the sense that we are not getting through, what might be in the way are our protectors or power selves. Our primary personality parts or primary selves are often power selves. They have been helping us to survive in this world for most of our lives. We are so used to those voices that we often think that’s just who we are.
To figure out what some of your power selves and/or primary selves are, consider for a moment what energy you tend to shift to cover up your vulnerability. Do you have an angry power self? A rational power self? A controlling power self? A moral power self? A righteous power self? A pusher primary part? A strong perfectionist part? A spiritual part you shift into? A psychoanalytical self? The list goes on. All those voices or energies help us to feel stronger and in control. In relationships, however, they keep the other person at a distance.
The more we are in touch with our vulnerable authentic self and can communicate from an Aware Ego, the more clearly our partner can hear us without needing to go into their protective power selves, like anger, defensiveness, or wanting to be right.
Our judgements in a partnering relationship give us the feedback that our disowned selves are operating. Coming from our primary selves, we tend to judge more harshly. If I am over-identified with the rational mind, I will judge a partner who is more emotional and makes his or her decisions from a feeling place. If I am identified with being an extrovert, I might judge a more introverted person as slow or too quiet and might not understand why they need quiet time alone to think. The introvert, in turn, might judge the extrovert as being too loud, too quick and for needing or craving social interactions. When there is a doer and a dreamer in a partnership, they will judge each other’s approaches to life. Or if I am over-identified with that voice that worries what other people think, I might judge my partner for dressing more relaxed, not having good table manners or saying something inappropriate.
However, “the thing you hate the most and judge the most is the medicine that you need the most” (Dr. Hal Stone, founder of Voice Dialogue). What Hal Stone means by that is that whatever our partner is showing us is most likely an energy we are not in touch with. In order to be whole human beings and have the true freedom of choice of how we want to feel and act in each given moment, it is a good idea for us to consider embracing that trait which we judge.
Often judgments go both ways, as in the example above. So what is happening with the couple in our example? They are mirroring each other’s shadows. They judge each other for what they themselves have disowned. He is judging her for making a “silly” request, caring too much about appearance, and being controlling and conscious of time. He is identified with a more relaxed attitude towards meals and having guests. She judges him as being lazy and unhelpful and incapable or possibly too uneducated or too carefree to meet her standards of perfection.
The couple has different priorities and different needs. How differently would the conversation go if they used non-violent communication to acknowledge the partner’s feelings and needs and express their own? A successful conversation could sound like this:
She : ”I am starting to feel a bit stressed because I am worried we won’t be done when your parents arrive. I am anxious because I want everything to be welcoming. Would you please set the table now?”
He: “I have noticed that you are feeling stressed. I know you like things to look nice and make sure that our guests are comfortable. Thank you for doing all this work. I would still like to finish my e-mail to forget about work and relax when my parents arrive. Is it okay with you if I set the table in half an hour?”
She: “Thank you for letting me know about your e-mail. I understand that you would still like to finish. If you could make sure to use the new tablecloth and find matching napkins, that would help me a lot. Can you please make sure we are done with the preparations when your parents arrive? I want to be able to give them our full attention when they get here.”
They have both acknowledged each other’s feelings and needs. They have also clearly and non-confrontationally expressed their own feelings and needs. Setting the table has become an acceptable request instead of a silly demand. When we have made a request rather than a demand, our partner has the option to negotiate how and when he or she meets the request.
The Four-Part Nonviolent Communication Process developed by Marshall Rosenberg includes: Clearly EXPRESSING what I observe, feel and require, and making a clear request; openly RECEIVING what my communication partner observes, feels, needs and requests.
The steps of non-violent communication are not complicated. However, it requires discipline to remember to communicate with I statements, expressing how we feel, and without generalizations (“You always,” “You never”) or why-questions which can be taken as criticism (Why is the table not set? Why are the children not in bed yet?). When you use the words, “I feel because I…” we need to remember that what we feel is not because of what the other person did but because of our perception and a feeling choice we made regarding our perception.
I often hear one partner saying, “I just don’t understand why he/she feels this way!” That statement is a hidden judgment. It prevents us from building a bridge. Change it to “I am willing to understand how he/she feels.” It helps to truly empathize and understand why our partner has a certain feeling or need. However, ultimately it is immaterial if we understand on a rational level; we need to respect feelings without judgments, even if they are different from ours. It helps if we can empathize. It is needed to arrive at a point where we can accept the other person’s feelings the way they are. To communicate most successfully, we must move beyond needing to be right and beyond making the other person wrong. If we want our feelings and needs to be respected, we need to stop judging other people’s feelings and needs and begin to accept and respect them truly.
Relationship Coaching & Belief Change Work
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