How do I create emotional safety? Part 2

Changing your behaviors and communicating effectively

– In my previous post, I discussed the foundations of emotional safety. The next part of the process is to change how we communicate.

Engaging in the relationship recovery process requires good faith which demands a lot from people. It requires that they suspend judgment long enough to ask questions in a spirit of openness and curiosity. This is tremendously important! Consider this research from John Gotmann (Gottman, 2014) who ran a laboratory for couple’s dynamic research for 30 years:

96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction.

How about handling those first three minutes in a new way?

Try this instead:

  1. Both partners have to come up with alternatives to their behavior.
  2. Everyone involved should practice grounding before engaging in this conversation.
  3. Ask each other for readiness as opposed to, for example, randomly starting the conversation at 1am.
  4. If the issue is complex, state the intention at the beginning of the conversation:

    We’re not looking for solutions here. We’re not here to convince each other. We’re practicing hearing each other in order to understand the other person’s perspective and to become better able to tolerate differences.

5. You can aid this process by writing on each other’s hands: “Let’s replace criticism with curiosity” and/or “kindness”.

6. Think about those words for a few minutes before starting the conversation. If necessary, agree to a time limit on the conversation and continue when you feel ready again.

Soft start

Imagine you had a cat and you really wanted to pet it. However the cat doesn’t want you to. What do you do? You certainly don’t poke it with your finger (aka criticize). What else can a cat do other than fight or flee? It’s an automatic response, and people are no different. Their nervous system reacts with fighting or stonewalling. Their blood flow is in the limbic system and you want it in the cortex, remember? So, how do you make the cat come to you?

You have a role to play in being heard. Try using “I” statements:

I feel….. when…..

I appreciate when…..

I need or would like to request…..

Practice softness, and try not to sound like a robot just for the sake of trying. Maybe it would help to picture your wording if you were saying it to someone else. Stay on topic. If you bring up many issues from the past, you are simply giving the other person more reasons to disagree with you.

Using an “I” statement trains us to take responsibility for how we feel while sharing the impact of an other’s behavior upon us. This allows everyone’s experiences and needs to be valid.

Practice this as many times as necessary to achieve agreement. Keep in mind that many happy couples never actually achieve agreement on some issues but they learn to accept the differences and to work around them.

It helps tremendously to also be somewhat detached from the outcome. You know that you can self-soothe, or, if necessary, even break up if your needs aren’t consistently met. Start thinking about your options and your safety net. If your self-esteem is low or you recognize that you have a black hole starving for affection that no one can fill, please find a therapist for individual therapy. A therapist is ideally a neutral and constructive third-party who can help you deepen your capacity for trust.

For more information on communication, please read about non-violent communication, about which there are many books and online courses.

Effective listening

A listener should repeat what they just heard once or several times until the person who was disclosing their vulnerability feels that they’re heard, seen and understood. They should respond with empathy and remind themselves that they don’t need to get upset. Showing appreciation is crucial. No agreement is required at this stage. Always remember that defensiveness is sending a message: “I don’t care and I don’t want to change, grow or connect; you deal with your stuff alone.”

Remember that when it comes to emotions, what you can name, you can tame.

Discussing emotions in detail helps you become aware of different components of your experience. It’s easier to solve the problem if you break it down. Cultivate an open mindset for this. It might be incredibly hard at the beginning if nobody paid attention to your emotions when you were young, and yet this is a learnable skill that can help you have the happy relationship you crave.

Between hard discussions, intentionally communicate feelings of interest, acceptance, and love to each other, even if you don’t feel like it at first. Intentionally increasing the ratio of good/bad interactions helps a lot to overcome bumps on the road.

Changing your thoughts

Imagine going to a gym and having a bad coach who’s trying to motivate you with really negative statements: “Look how everyone is stronger than you. See that guy there, you will never be like him!” If you have such a coach in your head, who’s mean or simply repetitive and not at all creative, try to instead invent a better one! Here are some examples:

Before and during the conversation, I’m connecting with the best in me and my best values.

I am accountable for my own words and actions and am ready to correct dysfunctional behavior.

I am capable of being generous, to apologize and forgive.

If one of us gets too upset, we can have a time-out. In case of a blow-out, we can make a repair when later grounded. This is the essence of trust.

I will certainly do my best, stretch and grow, but I’m not responsible for making my partner’s negative feelings go away in this situation.

What I think and feel matters, and I get to decide on my life.

It’s OK to end a relationship if we conclude we’re not compatible. I’ll educate myself on what a happy relationship is and correct my behavior. After practicing this I can make an informed decision if my relationship works or not. This knowledge will be useful in any case for all my future relationships.

If I need to break up, I’ll be OK. Heartbreak is really painful but fades with time.

I’ll try experiments and use them as learning opportunities even if they fail. I’ll get wiser.

It’s normal to not agree on everything. I can pick my battles and tolerate some things instead of making it a big issue.

I can take a deep look inside and see how my past interferes with the present moment. I can heal old wounds and not make my partner responsible for my well-being. This is empowering.

Read these statements carefully. Think of their benefits. Some things may be too uncomfortable at the beginning, for example, to apologize. Try to figure out why and how apologizing was dealt with in your childhood family. What is the relationship between that and your current self-esteem? Then find someone around you who doesn’t have issues with apologizing and observe its positive effects. If you can, talk about it with that person.

Take a moment to write down what your inner good coach is saying to you. Its voice may seem quiet at the beginning but you can absolutely make it louder with time. You already have that neural network and now you’re training it like a muscle.

Disagreeing while staying connected is a challenge and it’s not easy to harmonize clashing needs for attachment vs. autonomy; however, if this process is meant to be at all, it has to happen in an emotionally safe place.

Return to part 1: What is emotional safety?

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