Communication in a relationships is not always easy….
I’m sure you completely understand this from personal experience…
When there is conflict or a challenge in a relationship, there are 3 elements needed for meaningful satisfying communication to occur. Willingness, skills, and structure. Willing participants who have enough skill to participate in a communication structure that’s protective and grounded. If you have these 3 things you’ve got a REALLY GOOD CHANCE of building trust, understanding, and resolution.
Cultivating willingness to participate in meaningful communication could be called “Step Zero.” I’m not so much going to discuss how to cultivate willingness in this article, however the structure below will help build connection and understanding, which in turn could spark a sense of genuine willingness in a person…
Here is a six-step structure for conscious communication and a brief description of some communication tools. This is what works for my husband and I. At the minimum we do steps 1, 3, and 5. All the steps make it a well-rounded meeting. Take what inspires you, leave the rest, or add to it and make it your own! For example you could a spiritual activity that feels supportive for both you and your partner.
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1) Time Agreement
Agree upon the length of the meeting and generally stick to that plan. If something important comes up and you have time to spend extra time together, then great, but generally it’s respectful of both of your time and energy to stick with the agreed upon length of time. 1 – 1.5 hours seems like a reasonable amount of time for a dialogue. I suggest using a timer to ensure each part of the meeting is achieved.
2) I am Experiencing
Start with back and forth expressions in the format of, “I am experiencing _____.” This exercise is about getting connected to yourself and starting the meeting with consciousness. Experiences are 1 of 3 things: thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Try not to get into the story around those experiences and leave the expression brief. “I am experiencing fear. I am experiencing tension in my shoulders. I am experiencing a memory from yesterday. I am experiencing curiosity. I am experiencing resistance.” Whatever you’re experiencing, give it a voice, without judgement. Go back and forth, taking turns speaking, with the format “I am experiencing ______” for maybe 5-10 minutes.
3) Empathic Dialogue
This is what works for my husband and I! Agree to the ground rules each time you start an empathic dialogue. I suggest 2 main ground rules below, but you can adjust them or add ground rules that you want or need. Be rigorous with yourself and your agreements. This is what we say out loud, each time before we go into an empathic dialogue:
“I commit 100% that when I’m listener I will listen to you with warmth and empathy. Do you agree to do the same when you are listener?” (“Yes.”)
“I commit 100% that when I’m speaker I will come from a place of taking 100% responsibility for my experience. Do you agree to do the same when you are speaker?” (“Yes.”)
These 2 ground rules make it safe to speak and easier to listen. Like, if the speaker is blaming and pointing the finger – it could make it really challenging for the listener to be warm and empathic. And if the listener is not warm, it probably won’t feel safe to keep speaking.
The foundational skill for showing empathy is reflective listening. “I hear you are angry.” “You are sad.” “It sounds like you’ve been really frustrated with me.” So much more can be said about how to listen, but WARM reflective listening is totally enough to start with. And I recommend the book Relationships That Work by Dr. David B. Wolf for more training (new edition coming out soon!).
I encourage you to strive for this structure, but understand that you’re both in a learning process of trying on a new way of communicating, and let there be room for total failures and mistakes. Let the mistakes be learning opportunities. Have a little faith in the other person to grow into this!
4) Discussion (if needed)
If you have an important issue at hand, you can leave room in the meeting to have casual conversation around that issue. The previous 2 structures will likely support you to feel more connected to yourself and each other, so this important discussion has a better chance of being productive and fruitful in that sacred space you’ve already created. You may even find yourselves continuing with the empathic way of interacting! Indeed I do recommend keeping the culture between you warm and empathic during the discussion.
Exchange appreciations of each other. I suggest the format of, “I experience you as ____.” This supports the appreciations to be about the qualities of the person, rather than what the other person does or does not do.
6) I am Experiencing
Consider adding another 5 minutes of back and forth “I am experiencing ____” expressions. This closes the meeting with connection and consciousness.
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I’ll be interested to hear how this works for you. It’s simple, yet I understand firsthand that it’s not always easy!