Start right and you have got a fighting chance to achieve what you are hoping to do—whether that means being clearly understood, creating a mood conducive to closeness or healing a misunderstanding. How your conversation begins is likely how it ends. Research indicates that the initial interchange between partners largely determines the course and outcome of the entire conversation. Start on the wrong foot and you'll likely end up stumbling, tripping, tripping up your partner or escalating anger. So your mindset at the beginning of conversation with your partner, or anyone else with whom your connection is important, bears scrutiny.
Ever wonder what a mindful conversation is? The three following questions will move you into mindful conversation territory. They exemplify the kind of anticipatory strategizing that opens dialogue and builds emotional safety. They also slow down reactivity. Your awareness of the answers, even approximate answers, to these questions maximize your chances for being heard and feeling good about your communication process. Skip them at your peril:
Question #1: How are you feeling? Awareness of how you feel is primary. To speak or act without awareness of how you are feeling is dangerous. In order to create emotionally safe messages, you’ve got to start out with an awareness of where you yourself are coming from.
Question #2: How is your partner feeling? Think about who your partner is at the moment. Are they at their best? Their worst? Are they likely to have a problem with what you have in mind to discuss? None of these questions necessarily prohibit you from trying to have a dialogue in the moment. The point of mentioning these things is that they are the kind of considerations that can help you decide when the optimal time to get your message across may be. Many issues require ongoing conversation, so the idea is often not to target a time to resolve a particular issue but to find a time to open it for discussion and then work to continue resolving it.
Question #3: What do you want to accomplish in your conversation? Having awareness of what you would like to accomplish with your partner is critical to establishing a sense of connection. If you are able to move in the direction you would like, that’s great. If the conversation leaves you feeling that your approach was unproductive, you are then in a position to adjust accordingly. This posture—a flexible one—is useful and necessary. It is a sign that the way you approach your partner is nuanced and mindful of opportunities for learning from experience, rather than blindly plunging into conversation without regard to the consequences.
Knowing how you are positioning yourself and how your partner is experiencing the moment maximizes possibilities for a good start to the conversation. These questions may sound elemental but how you prepare for conversation will have a significant impact on how much you are able to accomplish in terms of improving the depth of connection you experience in important dialogues you have. Key point: Good conversation consists of the ability to make clear points and to be in good listening mode so that the dialogue can move towards a meeting of minds. If you begin a conversation with the sole intention of speaking your mind, that may be valuable—as a preliminary to dialogue; but it also can be a dialogue-stopper. Having the intention to speak your mind and encourage a flow of dialogue is what we are after.
I worked with a couple (I’ll call them Marisa and Howard to protect their confidentiality) who tended to begin their conversations without asking themselves the questions outlined above. Both are intelligent, high-achieving New Yorkers who were having difficulty feeling connected. You might say that they had given up on each other and were coming in for couples therapy to give it one last chance. Marisa began the first session, “Howard doesn’t communicate with me. We are on a different wavelength. He responds to other people when we are in social situations but not to me. She said, “I prepared a delicious meal for us and friends. Everyone at the table gave me compliments and I felt appreciated by them. Everyone said they loved the meal except for Howard.” From there Marisa went on to outline two or three more situations in which she had anticipated getting positive feedback from Howard but had felt disappointed and then enraged.
In his defense, in regard to the meal she had cooked, Howard said, “I ate three large helpings of the lasagna and salad. Others may have used words to express their approval of the meal. I said it loud and clear with my actions. But the way I do things doesn’t seem to count with Marisa. I only get heard if I use language that meets her specifications. Sometimes,” he turned to me, ”Marisa is only happy if I say the exact words that she is expecting to hear. Anything that I say or do that is close to what she is wanting to hear but done in my own way, gets discounted.”
Marisa had opened the conversation looking at me or straight ahead in my direction. Howard’s responses, facial and body language, were invisible to her. It was no surprise to me when Howard reported feeling invisible as far as she was concerned.
There was virtually no eye contact in the beginning of this conversation. Marisa spoke at great length. As she went on Howard’s face and body language became increasingly constricted. By the time she finished speaking, his face was squinched tight as if he had been stung by a bee. Asked what he was feeling he said, “Attacked, dismissed and demeaned.” Marisa responded by saying, “I would use the same words to describe how I feel too.”
After they integrated the three-question approach (outlined above) to their conversation, their talks improved. Anger lessened and each felt freer to expand on how they felt without resorting to blaming or accusing. Howard tended to verbalize more freely and Marisa was conscious of wanting to encourage him to feel heard.
The following are three tips that helped this couple become closer as our work deepened. The suggestions will help any couple move towards creating or strengthening a secure attachment.
First Tip: Keep your beginning short. Some partners open the conversation and then continue into the middle of the conversation, barely pausing for breath until they get to the end of the conversation. In other words, some partners seem to have a concept of conversation that is synonymous with monologue. Conversations need to have certain elements to rate as communicative: one is, they must be interactive. Conversations need spaces in which both participants can process what is going on. Non-stop talk, even if it goes back and forth, is rarely productive; not to say it may not be fun, it may be on occasion. Often, though, it is nervous chatter. In this respect, the rhythm of how partners go back and forth is significant. Think about this: Do you leave space for responses when you are talking? Do you pause before responding enough to truly consider what has been said rather than shooting back words as if on auto-pilot? Do you keep your remarks short enough to invite and encourage your partner’s participation? Do you tune into the rhythm of your partner’s way of speaking and give them enough space to complete their thoughts? Do you interrupt their flow? Do you talk with one another? Or at one another? Research indicates that the average adult can hold onto approximatey four chunks of information—roughly twenty to thirty seconds of language—at a time. What happens to the rest of it if we do not limit our conversation to brief spurts and then leave room for response before continuing? The same thing that happens to the water in the spaghetti pot when we pour it through the colander. It flows through without being absorbed or contained. It goes down the drain and does not make a substantial contribution to what your partner is able to capture and process.
Second Tip: Tone counts. The timbre of your voice is crucial. Strange as it sounds, many people are unaware of the tone of voice they employ. Ever think about why and how so many people are surprised and have a hard time listening to a recording of their voice? In part it has to do with unfamiliarity with how they sound. “Do I really sound like that?” is not an uncommon response to hearing your own voice on a recording for a first time. But I am not talking about learning and working with your tone as something that can be improved by going to a voice and diction coach. I am focusing on the quality of your voice, or any voice, and how it shifts with your conscious intention. Sounding like you really mean what you are saying and that you care about whether you are understood is often perceived by another as an aspect of your tone of voice. Tone creates an instantaneous mindset, based on the perception of what it signals, as to whether the conversation is going to be friendly or adversarial, challenging or inviting. Within the first seconds of the conversation, tone determines whether possibilities for connection will succeed or be dashed to smithereens.
Third Tip: The first step towards a new beginning involves losing your way; the old way that is. Until you lose the old way, you cannot take a new one. The old way of doing things creates a sense that things are pre-determined and new possibilities elusive or even non-existent. Too many conversations begin in a rote manner. They begin with no forethought about leaving room for spontaneity or ingenuity. If expectations for what is going to happen rest squarely on the foundation of what has already happened, then chances are that few surprises will emerge. Would it surprise you to learn that D.W. Winnicott, one of the most brilliant and influential therapist-practitioners to ever contribute to the field of psychotherapy, equated the ability to experience surprise with mental health? For Winnicott, the element of surprise—its presence or absence--was a useful measure of spontaneity and creativity in an interpersonal dialogue. No surprises signified significant difficulties. At the beginning of a conversation is when you especially need to nurture the intention to make conversation open enough to bear surprises—which can include possibilities previously unrecognized. Who keeps track of what needs to be discussed as well as how to bring liveliness and surprise into the conversation? Both partners are responsible for doing their part. And no one partner can do it alone; but each may approach doing it differently.
The takeaway: Conversations need to be front-loaded with encouragement, clarity, support, and positive intention. Beginnings of conversations are crucial, they require forethought—this will open the gates to increased spontaneity. Why? Because by being mindful of how and where you’d like your conversation to flow you can avoid predictable pitfalls.
This post touches on some of the conversational elements that help create emotional safety. The goal is to help you deepen and broaden how you conduct your important conversations and create space for new perspectives to emerge. Please try these techniques out and let me know what you find. Until next time, all my best and warmest regards, Marty.
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