Marty Babits

The Middle Ground

Compassionate Communication

5 steps to healthy vulnerability

Posted Nov 03, 2015

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Today’s guest blogger, Adrienne Glasser LCSW, continues the theme of mind-body awareness with a set of coherent suggestions on how to make your communication more compassionate—for your partner and yourself. The method also works with friends and family and anyone else with whom you want to have a more humanized experience! 

We all argue. It’s only human to get frustrated with those we love. In fact, arguments are often noble attempts at communicating effectively that go awry. A few weeks ago, I was trying to get some writing done at home and deadlines had me pretty stressed out.  My husband just would not stop bothering me. He asked me questions about the upcoming weekend, or did I want breakfast. It didn’t matter what he said, my resentment grew by the minute. “Doesn’t he see that I need to concentrate?” I heard loudly in my head. My nervous system actually perceived this breakfast offering as an environmental threat worthy of a fight, flight or freeze response. This time, the wheel of fortune for survival stopped on FIGHT.

“When are you going to leave for work? I mean, can you just go already?” I snapped.

“Fine” he retorted. “You know that I was just offering you breakfast right?”

“I don’t care just leave!”

Of course it immediately hit me that I was being pretty mean. Even though I pride myself on my meditation practice and being a compassionate therapist, I found myself snapping. In the past, I would have compounded this awareness by beating myself up afterward. I would feel embarrassed but still have a hard time controlling the impulse to lash out. But this time I recognized that my attempt to gain control of my environment was really about my suffering, and instead of beating myself up, I did something else:  I smiled at my feelings.

In this moment I allowed for some self-compassion, which led to compassion for my husband having to reckon with a partner that confused breakfast with a threat. I quickly took a breath and said how sorry I was for not saying what I needed in a nicer way. These kinds of arguments can really escalate quickly (many times much more dramatically than this example) and can be avoided if we are able to use mindfulness and compassion with our loved ones.

Below is a 5 step process that I use in my practice as a therapist to help couples and families build compassionate communication. It’s also what I practice in my relationship. This 5 step process is a practice, and takes much time to cultivate- so be compassionate with yourself as your initial attempts will be imperfect.

There are two caveats to this method: The first is that vulnerability is difficult for almost everyone. Many respond with hostility when their partner makes themselves vulnerable. That’s because it points up their own difficulty in  doing the same. If you are in this situation, you can try saying something like: “Any time I am vulnerable you get more angry with me, why is that?” Remember, this presupposes your partner is open to making inroads into dealing with this issue.  Curiosity can be transformative.

The other caveat applies when a relationship is abusive and communication is based on power or control over another. In these cases, it’s important to know that you always have the right to end an argument and walk away if it is infringing on your safety emotionally or physically.

5 Steps Of Mindful Communication:

1. Actual Mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t just about being peaceful and loving no matter what. Unless you’re a monk who spent decades in a monastery on the brink of enlightenment, that isn’t realistic.  Moreover, this is not what mindfulness looks like. Mindfulness, simply put, is remembering to come back to the present moment.

In my example, I couldn’t stay in the moment because of the compounded stress of  my looming deadlines. Had I come back to the moment with open awareness, I would have noticed that my body’s discomfort was a signal to advocate (nicely) for my own needs. Mindfulness of the body is a wonderful way to increase awareness of when feelings start to arise, before they get a chance to take over and run the show. A mindfulness pause allows for a different experience to emerge.

2. Be curious about the real suffering.

When we argue, I sometimes say, we are often just “talking about the laundry.”  Laundry, in this case, is a metaphor for the surface level of a conversation. In my example, the surface level was about my husband leaving the house and I felt the tension in my chest.  My real suffering had more to do with my misperception that my space was getting out of control.  Being curious about the underlying belief or emotion in the body can lend clarity to what’s really happening.

3. Have compassion towards yourself.

Easier said than done, but this simply means validating your feelings. Once you have clarified what you are actually feeling, try to invite radical acceptance towards that feeling. You can comfort yourself by “seeing” your own anger or “smiling” at your own anxiety.

4. Compassion towards your partner

This challenging step can be made easier by keeping in mind that when someone expresses anger towards you, they are protecting their own vulnerability. Be curious about what vulnerability may be underlying what your partner is saying. When my husband finally snapped back in the example above, he was probably guarding his own feeling of rejection as he got shot down while making an offer to connect. As with your own, be curious about your partner/family member’s actual suffering.

5. Be willing to risk being vulnerable first.

In the midst of an argument, it’s often challenging to be the first to say “I’m sorry” or to speak about the real fear lies beneath all the defensiveness. With practiced mindfulness, you’ll become increasingly adept at identifying your underlying vulnerability. The more you’re willing to be vulnerable first, the more likely it is for the argument to de-escalate. Even if you’re really angry, It’s very challenging to argue against the softness and kindness of an exposed underbelly.

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Through the practice of these 5 steps, I have seen couples and families learn how to communicate more effectively. Again, this process is imperfect, and as with meditation, it is a practice. The key is to keep coming back to remembering this present moment, and to feeling what is actually happening underneath our defenses.

I love the candor and warmth of Adrienne's perspective. There are many ways to get beneath the surface and push your relationships in the direction of depth and mutuality. I'd love to hear about your attempts to bring her suggestions into your day-to-day experience. All comments, questions, suggestions are welcome. I am comparing what she has outlined to my own thoughts about three-dimensional comunication and find the two are extremely compatible. Both point out a path towards developing emotional safety and intimacy. I hope you enjoyed this post and if so be sure to like Adrienne on FB. I would love it if you also visit my author page on FB and give me a like as well!