This article is part of a series: Relationships 101: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4.
Oh yeah!!! We’re back with Week 5 of Relationships 101: Seeking to Understand Relationships
This series is my gift to you because I want you to have the greatest happiness and peace you possibly can in all your relationships. If you read and re-read this series until you really get it, and practice these key tools, you will find that all your connections get simpler, easier, deeper and more pleasurable for you and almost all of that happens without you having to have any “big” conversations and confrontations.
This week’s article and homework assignment (should you choose to explore it) will prove this, and you’ll be so amazed at how easy and safe relating to others can be. Oh yeah!!!
This week’s article “Seeking to understand” could just as aptly be called: “Allowing for the possibility that you have misunderstood someone.”
I know, I know. It’s them. They suck at communication. They didn’t do a good job of asking for what they need. They didn’t ask you the right questions or share the right information. They didn’t listen. They didn’t understand You!
I know! It’s frustrating! And…it’s possible that it’s not all their fault. It’s possible that your own insecurities and doubts and uncertainty about your right to ask for what you need; to communicate directly about what you want and about what feels okay and not okay to you; led to you being a little less than crystal clear about what you felt and needed. Isn’t that just a little bit possible?
The good news is, even if you really strongly believe that you’re the best communicator in the world and that the problem really does lie with the other person’s inattention, deafness, disrespect and/or ignorance, seeking to understand will take care of their problem and yours all in one fell swoop, leading to greater ease in communication and far less frustration and hurt between you.
You see, when you take the time to ask questions rather than just assume you know what someone meant, or that they heard and fully understood you, you remove 98+% of any relationship stress right away. That’s worth trying out don’t you think?
Seeking to understand means that you make sure that before you end a conversation, and, preferably, throughout the conversation, that you recap; you practice the communication skill of asking questions and feeding back what you’ve heard so that you know, at the end of each conversation, that you have been heard and that the message you meant to deliver has been understood. These two statements are not one and the same. In fact, being heard and being understood are often two very different things.
Someone can hear you, even repeat verbatim what you said, and not understand you at all. That’s because of this annoying pattern in human communication called “attaching to the meta-message.” The “meta-message” is all the parts of our communication except for the actual words we speak. It’s the tone, the speed, the body language, the eye contact. It’s the history you have with this person. It’s the assumptions you make about what this person is “really” saying – i.e. the story you’re telling yourself, or that they are telling themselves, that there’s more to what is being said than just the words. It is the cause of almost all communication problems and therefore it is the cause of almost all relationship problems.
Mary says to Geoff: “Are you going out with the boys tomorrow night?”
Geoff responds with a defensive tone: “Yeah, why?”
Mary feels hurt that Geoff has used that “tone” and responds with her own “tone”: “Just wondering….” Adding a little sigh at the end for good measure.
Geoff withdraws into stony silence. Mary withdraws into herself, and so the night goes.
If only Geoff had asked Mary: “Is there something about me going out that doesn’t feel okay to you?” the night could have been so different.
He could have heard Mary sincerely say: “No, not at all, I was just wondering. Why did you respond as you did?”
Or he could have heard Mary say: “Well, I’m feeling really sad these days and I just really feel lonely when you’re not here. I was hoping you’d stay in.”
Or he could have heard her say any number of things that would have helped him to understand her intention and to feel closer to her, but you see, there was a time when Geoff had a girlfriend who was jealous and who used to cause big fights when he went out with the boys, so Geoff is very protective of his guy nights and very reluctant to bring up a discussion about them. He assumes that Mary is just being jealous rather than allowing for the possibility that she has other needs that are valid. Geoff would certainly be open to helping Mary feel loved and nurtured if only she’d tell him that that’s what she needs right now and how he could meet that need.
For her part, Mary could have asked: “Why did you say ‘yeah, why?’ with that defensiveness?”
Or she could have taken a few minutes to regroup and to acknowledge that she didn’t really do a good job of asking for what she needed and try again with: “I would really appreciate it if you could stay home tomorrow night. I just really need a lot of support right now.” But she didn’t because, for her part, she has a belief that her needs aren’t important, that if she asks directly for what she wants, she’ll be judged as selfish and she’ll be rejected. So she doesn’t ask, she hints, and rarely actually gets what she wants, and even when she does, she can’t receive it fully because she feels unworthy and doesn’t really trust that the person wants to give her what she wants because she believes that she manipulated them into it. It’s not a good strategy for self-esteem and healthy, intimate relationships.
If either of these people had just acknowledged that there was some awkwardness between them and had taken the time to ask a question to figure out why; to seek to understand the reactions and responses of the other; to allow for the possibility that there had been a miscommunication rather than assuming that they knew what the other person was really saying (trusting their interpretation of the meta-message), the evening could have gone so differently and they both would have felt greater understanding and safety and intimacy with each other. As it happened, they felt sadder, lonelier, and less happy with each other – all over one misunderstanding.
Imagine a year of these kinds of conversations? What about 2 or 5 or 10? There would be so many erroneous assumptions made about each other’s intentions that the walls between them would have to be breached with a nuclear bomb! Having said that, this communication tool is a very powerful tool and has the capacity to break down decades old walls and transform relationships in just a few short conversations.
It comes to this:
In order to feel trusting of others and to feel peaceful and therefore not need to soothe yourself with harmful coping strategies like food, alcohol, drugs, TV (over-use), shopping, perfectionism etc., you have got to be committed to asking for clarification of what the other person is needing and to ensure that you have been understood. You’ve got to be more committed to knowing the truth than you are to being right or being protected from potential judgement or rejection. Challenge yourself to trust the other person or get out of the relationship. Trust that you can handle the truth or hurry up and do some work on your core belief systems (chapter 12 of my book “Food is not the Problem: Deal With What Is!” is all about identifying and releasing old core beliefs) so that you can feel more confident in yourself and in your relationships rather than building walls and making erroneous assumptions that harm you and your relationships.
In order to have truly fulfilling, healthy, fun, playful, warm, safe, loving, intimate relationships, you have got to hold yourself accountable to ask questions whenever something that the other person is saying or doing doesn’t feel good or right, and not give up until you have enough understanding of their intention that you feel peaceful (assuming their intent wasn’t to be mean or disrespectful which is typically won’t be unless the relationship is abusive). If you are committed to a life free from using food to cope; a life that is peaceful and safe, you can no longer let a situation that feels off, unsettling, or hurtful go by without you asking what the person meant to say, or what led them to behave as they did.
You have also got to hold yourself accountable to speak directly, clearly and respectfully about what you need and want and to be clear about how that person could meet your need if they were willing.
If you’re not prepared to do these key steps in relationships, you are making a powerful statement to yourself that you would rather stay stuck in your assumptions than know the truth – the underlying belief here being that you already know the truth and that it’s bad and therefore it’s better that you don’t ask because you’ll only get confirmation of what you really believe which is that you’re not lovable enough or good enough or smart enough or pretty enough or interesting enough.
It is those bogus old beliefs that make us not check out our assumptions and that lead to walls where there once was a beautiful open heart. Those beliefs prevent you from asking questions. They prevent you from asking for what you need, and they prevent you from feeling secure in yourself and in your relationships. They also prevent you from stepping free from harmful coping strategies like restricting / anorexia, purging / bulimia, binge eating, and dieting.
I promise you, those old beliefs will fall away in weeks, regardless of how old you are and what traumas you’ve endured, if you just challenge yourself to ask questions about why someone is saying what they’re saying or doing what they’re doing rather than assuming you know.
You will be enlightened in just one conversation, and the enlightenment just continues with each question you ask where once you would have withdrawn in hurt and insecurity.
Some Ways to Seek to Understand:
“What is it you mean by X?”
“What is your intention in saying X?”
“So, you’re saying…?”
“I notice that when I said X you did Y. What is it that you heard me say?”
“When I hear you say X, I think you’re really saying Y. Am I right?”
“What is it about my request that doesn’t work for you?”
Any or all of the above would be fabulous questions to ask to start the process of seeking to understand.
And whatever the other person says in response, don’t go into assumptions again, instead, clarify some more:
“So, you were saying X….?” “So, you were trying to achieve X?” And don’t stop seeking to understand until the person says: “Yes, that’s exactly what I meant/where I was coming from.”
Then you know you’ve got the true intention of their words and that whatever it is you’re feeling or wanting to do in response to that is founded in reality and not in old harmful beliefs.
If you hold yourself accountable to just asking questions/seeking to understand whenever things are a little awkward or you feel insecure in a situation, you will find that not only does the distress in that situation fall away immediately (in almost every single case), but that your automatic assumption of criticism, rejection, abandonment and judgement falls away and instead, you automatically assume that you are a good, worthwhile person, who occasionally makes mistakes, who is worthy of understanding and forgiveness herself, and who is committed to having the most open, transparent, intimate connections possible, and that, in all the but the abusive connections in your life, others think you are worthy and lovable too.
Try asking questions that check out your assumptions whenever you feel at all unsettled in your communications with others and you’ll be amazed at how much more safe, mature and confident you feel.
Have fun with this. It will transform your life for the better.