by Jason Pogue, PLPC
In 6th grade I remember we had a day set aside where we watched videos on bullying in order to promote awareness and prevention. As part of this educational program we were taught how to communicate our feelings using “I” statements, and some small pieces of what we now call assertiveness training. Though I’m thankful this is even a part of some school curriculum, I’m not so sure it works. The next time I actually ran into a bully my heart was racing a little too fast to remember my “I” statements and the strategies for assertiveness.
It is a prolonged myth in popular culture and even in the field of counseling that teaching communication skills is effective at creating connection in distressed relationships.
Most of the research shows what my 6th grade self knew – our physiology takes over in the moment and our “skills” go out the window. So does that mean we are doomed to distress? Absolutely not. It is possible in the midst of our distress to really get at the heart of the matter and connect with one another, but it takes hard work. When something cues up our “fight or flight” response our emotional system (limbic) has already processed what’s happening multiple times before our rational system (prefrontal cortex) even comes online to explain what’s happening. From there we make a decision – and if our relationship is distressed we likely make a decision that is confusing to our partner. Take the following example:
Sarah is angry at John because she feels she is doing all the chores and he comes home and just sits on the couch. Really underneath it all Sarah feels she isn’t appreciated and seen for who she is and all she’s doing – but instead of being able to connect with this deeper place, John only experiences her anger coming after him. So, John responds by going into his ‘shell.’ He shuts down out of fear, freezing and hoping desperately to not make another wrong move. Deep down he feels like he can never get it right – like maybe something is just fundamentally wrong with him – but though this happens inside what John shows on the outside is further avoidance. He shuts down, closes up – his face goes blank and he has no words. This makes Sarah even more scared she is losing John, and so Sarah tries even harder to get her man back – so she pokes harder to try and get him to respond. But, this makes John feel even more paralyzed with fear and shame, and he shuts down even more…and round and round we go!
The point is, we can have all the communication skills in the world, but when we are dealing with the most important relationship in our life – the person to whom we put our trust that they will be there for us and available to us in our time of need – when it feels like they aren’t we can be hi-jacked by deeper waters that render our “skills” mostly meaningless.
The key is finding a way to meet one another in this deeper place with an open posture, seeking to understand why they are there and meet them in the chaos to connect instead of self-protect.