There are countless articles and books that teach how intimate partners can better their communication. Many of my patients have explored and mastered those techniques but find that they often fail them when conflicts become heated and emotional.
Working with hundreds of couples during my forty-year career as a psychologist and marriage counselor, I would often witness well-meaning partners unable to stay caring and connected when they most need to. Instead of resolution of their current conflict, they, instead, end up distant and wounded. I realized that couples in distress needed a communication technique that would keep their hearts, minds, and souls intertwined, even when raw emotions threatened.
Many years ago, I began to search through all I could find that would help me create a set of skills that would keep people who loved each other emotionally and spiritually connected even when they were at odds. The foundation of the technique I’m going to share with you today began for me after I attended a lecture given by Dr. Ronald Laing, a renowned Scottish psychiatrist. He had come to America to demonstrate his unique way of successfully communicating with psychotic patients by entering their reality in a new way. What I learned that day was life-changing for me as a clinician. The following is a brief synopsis. It formed the core of the communication process I now teach my patients.
After explaining how he developed his unique approach, Dr. Laing asked for a volunteer from the audience. He chose a middle-aged man and asked him to come up on the stage. They sat a few feet apart, facing one another. Dr. Laing explained that he was going to demonstrate how he was going to try to accurately imagine what this volunteer’s inner thoughts and feelings would be without feedback from the volunteer.
He began by first taking a few moments to look intently at the man and then began:
“Our exercise will have four levels. During the first level, I am going to tell you what is going on inside of me as I face you. I will share in the most authentic way I can. Right now, I am feeling both curious and excited about what is about to happen between us. I am interested in knowing more about you and I am very aware that we are being watched carefully by many people. Though that always makes me a little bit nervous, my love of this kind of exercise easily overcomes my anxiety. I feel warmly toward you and want you to feel cared for and comfortable in this process.”
The man stayed silent and kept his composure. After a few moments, Dr. Laing continued:
“I am now going on to level two. At this level, I will try to imagine what is going on in you as you are sitting across from me. I realize this is all in my imagination but I want to try to enter your internal world. I think that you are wondering what is going to happen, sort of glad to be here, but uncomfortable at the same time. You don’t know me, so you can’t possibly feel trust in this process, yet you have come to see me because you want to understand it. You are glad to participate to get the most you can out of this evening.
You are smiling a little now, so I imagine that you feel a little more relaxed and perhaps are a little more open. You are likely a consummate professional who sincerely wants to better your capabilities. You feel confident in what you already do, but are willing to learn anything that makes sense to you. You are watching from behind a careful wall of ‘wait and see,’ and are determined to keep track of what I’m saying so that you will do the exercise to the best of your ability. You are conscientious and open to new ideas.”
Again, he waited a few minutes before continuing.
“In this third level I will imagine what you think may imagine what my thoughts and feelings are now. Perhaps you’re wondering how I came to the conclusions I did about you just now and how I am evaluating you. You might be wondering what it is like for me to be doing this and whether or not I’ll be able to guess correctly. You’re thinking about whether I see you as someone valuable. You may even be wondering how I feel about being here tonight and if I will feel good about this experience when it’s over. You’re musing as to whether I am really sincere or just putting on an act. Perhaps you are concerned that because I have done this so often that you are just part of this demonstration and not important beyond that.”
The next period of silence lasted a bit longer, but time didn’t seem to matter to any of us anymore. We were mesmerized by the intimacy that seemed to be happening between Dr. Laing and a complete stranger, but couldn’t understand how that could be happening when only one person was talking.
Dr. Laing now seemed to focus even more deeply:
“I’m now entering Level Four. In this part of the exercise, I’m going to take it one step further. I’m going to imagine what you are feeling now after you have heard my experience of myself, heard my imagining of your thoughts, and then listened to me imagining how you were imagining my inner experience.”
The man began to smile, completely engrossed.
“Now I’m going to imagine what your thoughts and feelings are now as I try, once more, to enter into what you may now be experiencing in this moment. Let me try. I imagine that you are torn between wondering where we’re going with all of this, and intrigued by the process. You are anxious to tell me both where I have been right and where I’ve been wrong. You are surprised at how close I’ve come to “getting” you and you’d like to know more about the process. You’re thinking how you might be able to learn this because you believe yourself to be a committed and excellent clinician, and want to be an even better one. You feel enlivened by what is happening between us and are anxious to try this with someone else.”
The volunteer remained silent for a few moments, seemingly deep in thought. Then he spontaneously reached out to shake Dr. Laing’s hand. He told him that he was awe-struck at how much of what Dr. Laing said had been totally accurate and how little had been incorrect. He wanted to know more about how Dr. Laing had been able to see so much of him without any feedback at all. Some of us thought that he must have been planted in the audience. As if he heard us, he spontaneously turned around and said, “Don’t think this was pre-arranged. I’ve never met this doctor before, and I am in total awe of what just happened between us.”
I went home equally amazed, thinking about how I could incorporate what I had seen in teaching intimate partners to know each other in that way. What if people in a relationship could so accurately and quickly understand their partner’s thoughts and feelings by somehow utilizing a simple version of what I had just witnessed? What if they could actually get closer and closer to a mutual world of understanding and support? Would that capability to focus so deeply into another’s reality make communication easier when they were emotionally distressed?
From that experience so many years ago, and the different versions I have experimented with throughout my career, I have created a simple and effective five-step process that can significantly enhance your ability to quickly and deeply communicate with anyone you love. With practice, you will stay close, caring, and connected to that person, even when you are in conflict or under stress.
The Five Steps
When you practice these steps for the first time, choose a topic together that is meaningful to both of you but is not controversial. As you master the technique, you can explore more difficult areas of your relationship. Begin with whichever of you wants to start going through the levels described below. The other partner holds a pen and paper in hand to jot down any responses he or she may have during the exercise, but remains silent until all five levels are complete. After the exercise is completed, your partner will then share with you how close or far you came to knowing what he or she was actually thinking and feeling. Then reverse the exercise, with the other partner choosing a new topic and completing the same five steps.
Step Number One – Knowing who you are
After deciding what topic you are going to share, look at one another silently for a few minutes, breathing gently and remembering how important your partner is to you. When you feel connected to each other, go inside your own heart and mind to explore how you feel in this moment. Pay attention to your body and your emotions.
Take into consideration how mature you feel, how rational your thoughts are, what past experiences can you rely on to help predict what is going to happen. What would your plan be if things didn’t work out as you wanted? Allow yourself to think freely without being fearful of the outcome. This level would be equivalent to Dr. Laing’s process: “I am fully experiencing who I am right now.” Then tell your partner everything you are thinking. He or she will remain silent, but can write down any responses.
Step Number Two – What Do You Imagine Your Partner is experiencing on the other end of you?
Look keenly at your partner. How do you think he or she will respond if you expressed your thoughts out loud? Rely upon all you remember about past interactions between the two of you when you’ve talked about this topic before. Were those interactions positive or negative and what were the outcomes? Can you listen, understand, and take into consideration what you think your partner will share with you? This is the second level, “I am thinking and feeling what I imagine how you would respond were you to know who I am in this moment.” Now share your thoughts and feelings with your partner. Again, he or she will remain quiet but can write down any responses to be shared later.
Step Number Three – Seeing yourself through the eyes of your partner
Can you leave your own internal experience and try to imagine what your partner will experience when you talk about this area of your relationship? Can you imagine what your partner’s heart, mind, and soul is thinking and feeling right now? When you imagine your partner’s current experience, how do you believe he or she is seeing you? Is it different from the way you see yourself? Can you honor your partner’s internal cultural and social way of looking at the world and your relationship, even if it is different from yours? This is a revision of Dr. Laing’s third level, “I am thinking now of how you are experiencing me.” Tell your partner your full experience as he or she remains silent.
Step Number Four – Look at the Interaction Between you as an Objective Observer
The following two steps are where I have departed from Dr. Laing’s technique. They more easily help intimate partners to create the path that will make their new awareness hold.
Step outside of the interaction that is happening between the two of you, as if you were witnessing it in a movie. If you were objectively and compassionately watching the two of you interacting, what would you observe in the non-verbal interaction between you and how would you feel about what you were seeing? If you were to film your sharing and imagine your partner’s responses, what would you think and feel about what is happening. Pay attention to the body language and facial expressions of both partners. In what ways do you think your partner would be seeing it the same or differently? Share your thoughts with our partner. He or she continues to be silent.
Step Number Five – Reclaiming your Sacredness Together
I often speak of the symbolic altar place that all successful couples worship together. An altar place is not necessarily religious. It is the ever-regenerating set of rules and ethics that both partners value and choose to live by. They do that in the presence of each other and by themselves when the other is not present. Both partners know at all times that these mutually chosen agreements are the foundation of the trust they feel for each other. In step number five, you tell your partner what you truly believe is your current mutual set of beliefs that you both continue to embrace and trust as the truth of your commitment to each other. This is about the definition of ultimate trust. You have been sharing aloud what you truly believe is the most sacred part of your relationship.
Your Partner’s Response
It is now your partners chance to comment. He or she can go over each of the thoughts and feelings you have covered. You will want to know how close you have come to what he or she was silently experiencing. It is your opportunity to hone and blend your internal thoughts and feelings together. As your partner tells you where you have been correct and where you have been off the mark, do not correct or judge. Your own reality is always true for you, but may not be for the other. You must respect those internal experiences whether they are mutual, similar in some ways, or completely different.
I have named this communication technique, “The Art of Translation” because it is truly the way two people accurately teach one another how to translate the other’s language of connection. Intimate partners, unique cultures onto themselves and wanting to explore, respect, and learn how they are understood by the other, feel more authentically connected than they ever have before.
No matter how well the partners in an intimate relationship believe they absolutely “get” the other, they will only do so successfully if they both can effectively communicate the ways they see things the same and how they do not. In time, using the exercise above, intimate partners can make those different realities merge into one. Past misunderstandings fade and future connections are more successful.