“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
(Roy T. Bennett, The Light of the World)
What if you were able to say absolutely anything you wanted to say to the people that matter most to you? What if you had a way to say things that made it possible for you to be really vulnerable with the people you care about? What if you could ask for what you really want, without fear of exploding the relationship?
Promises, promises, promises!!
The thing that typically gets in the way of that kind of raw, candid conversation, is what’s referred to as “emotional loading.” In her book, Fed Up, Gemma Hartley adeptly describes the way that women in American cultures are expected to carry the “emotional load” of our exchanges.
Most people born visibly female are sincerely trained, unconsciously and from birth, to over–function for those around us. We are taught to consider not just what we want to say, but also how what we will say will affect the other person emotionally. Being considerate is great! However, we are taught to go one step farther, to take ownership of the other person’s feelings.
For example, if the person is angry in response to what we say, it’s bad, it’s our fault, and we are supposed to make it right. We will sometimes withhold what we really want to say because we don’t want to deal with the other person’s anger. Now that part of us is left unspoken, and unmet, in the relationship. Furthermore, the other person’s anger is not present to do its job in prompting an important change.
This phenomenon is by no means exclusive to females, but we are its champions. We tacitly teach it to our children as well, and the cycle repeats.
Eugene and Toshi
Eugene and Toshi have been together most of their adult lives. They have two children and live a comfortable-enough middleclass life, with both partners working in careers they at least like. All seemed to be well until Toshi started struggling with the men on her workgroup. And by “the men” I mean… Every single one of her colleagues in the workgroup.
As an engineer, Toshi is used to being in male-dominated workplaces. As she has gotten into her 40’s however, she has become increasingly angry and frustrated with the way her colleagues seem to expect her to be the “Mom” in the group. They even jokingly refer to her as Mom in the workplace and make her the brunt of jokes around her differences. Switching to Zoom meetings during the COVID crisis only exacerbated their bad behavior and her frustration.
As a mother of two adolescents stretched thin between work and home, the very last thing she wants to be at work is MOM. She began reading Soraya Chemaly’s book, Rage Becomes Her, and started to recognize two important things: 1. She is REALLY angry. And 2. She REALLY does not have internal permission to be angry! It goes against everything she was taught growing up.
Eugene has been very supportive a Toshi has gotten more in touch with her anger. He is also tired of seeing her dismissed and devalued by her colleagues and he fully supports her learning how to stand up for herself.
Until she started telling him how angry she is with him.
“I can’t stand the way you just expect me to do everything, Eugene! I mean, I’m here all day working and trying to help the kids do their online schooling. You are here all day working, sometimes helping the kids, and yet you still seem to expect me to manage everything in the house from the cleaning to the food prep to cleaning out the cat litter while you hide away at your desk and pretend that you don’t live here too! I’m sick and tired of it!” Toshi was finally able to say to Eugene.
Eugene looked like a deer in the headlights. He thought everything was going relatively well. He didn’t realize that was happening because Toshi was working like Cinderella behinds the scenes, making it all go. In fact, she pretty much always had. He honestly didn’t know she wasn’t ok with that.
“Toshi, if you want me to do more, just ask. I had no idea!” exclaimed Eugene, still quite confused.
To Eugene’s growing alarm, instead of “making things better,” Toshi appeared to get even more angry. She blurted out, “You are so >choice word< clueless!! Why is this on me? Why do I have to keep track of all of this? I didn’t sign up for this. You have eyes. USE them! If the trash needs to go out, take it! If the toilet is dirty, clean it! Why do I have to be the only one who notices?!?!”
What a mess. If we get unhelpfully lost in fault, blame, who’s right and who’s wrong, this will never resolve in a way that brings this couple closer together.
I have a better idea.
If both Eugene and Toshi can take responsibility for only their own emotions, they are free to both say what they need to say, and hear what they need to hear in order to work together toward a sustainable change that works better for both of them. In order to do that, we need to make some agreements.
The 4 Answers
Toshi and Eugene agreed together that they were both “allowed” to give any one of the following sincere answers to any request:
This disconnects their emotional loading, as does taking responsibility for only their own emotions. Combining The 4 Answers with the XYZ Formula, (read more here,) Toshi was able to more effectively express herself and Eugene was able to understand her better, bring his own input to the table, and the couple worked together to change the way they were doing their relationship.
Toshi: Eugene, when the dishes pile up in the sink and you walk right past them it leaves me feeling devalued, like you just assume I will do everything, and I would prefer that you do them yourself instead.
Eugene: Can we negotiate?
Toshi: What did you have in mind?
Eugene: I walk past them sometimes and honestly, it doesn’t even register in my brain that something needs to happen. I don’t know why. I don’t expect you to do them. I kind of don’t think about them at all. It would work better for me if we traded days. If I have assigned days, I can put it on my calendar and it will get done. I’ll take 4 days and you take 3, ok?
Toshi: (With a sly grin on her face.) No.
Toshi: I’ll take one day. You take two days. Each of the kids gets two days!
Eugene: Diabolical. I LIKE it!
I feel like I should do a “Where’s Waldo?” on our tools at this point: Can you spot “Fact Checking?” “The XYZ Formula?” “The 4 Answers?” “You and Me Against the Problem?” It’s all in there.
Toshi asked a direct question. Eugene responded with a negotiation. Toshi’s initial answer was “No,” but then it became apparent that it was a joke, and she made a counteroffer to Eugene’s negotiation. Because Toshi used XYZ instead of being accusatory, Eugene was not as defensive, and was able to engage with authentic answer. Toshi was able to hear his authentic answer and the couple used the raw data to come to a decision together. Yay team!
A word of caution about employing the “Not Now” answer: You must actually get back to the conversation at another time. Not Now is very useful when it becomes clear that either you or the other person is really not in a good space to do the conversation well. Repeat after me: “We can do this well, or we can do it now; We can’t do both.” There are times when we need to step away, work on our self-regulation and shift from reactive mode to responsive mode before we try again. It is destructive and counterproductive to use “Not Now” in an insincere way. You need to circle back to the conversation at a better time.
Don’t let fears of explosion stop you! You are working on using better tools that will mean your conflicts don’t look like they used to. There is hope!
You Are Not Required to LIKE the Answer You Get
Understand, agreeing to The 4 Answers does not mean you will always like or be ok with the answer you get; It means that you will be much closer to the real issues. Some of them are likely to be volatile. That would be why I gave you all of those other tools first.
There is room for you to dislike the answer you get, and, this will all work a whole lot better if you respect the answer, even if you don’t like it. If the other person gives you a sincere “no,” it means, 1. You can trust that their “yes” is equally sincere, 2. You now have the valid data you need to move forward, and 3. There is a much better chance that your “no” will be reciprocally respected.
When a conversation starts to get heated and the other person gives you a “not now” it can be very difficult to drop it. If the conflict is heated, it has probably already become a power struggle on some level and letting it go feels like “losing.” You aren’t always going to want to hear the “not now.” Here’s the good news: If you table the conflict for now, you can come back to it in a more focused and effective way. Meaning, there is a better chance that you will actually get what you’re asking for! Again, “We can do this now, or we can do it well: We cannot do both.” Trust that. It will work to your ultimate advantage. The issues will still be there later. Relationships are marathons, not sprints.
Your Next Leg of the Marathon
Next up! The Stop Light Technique! This handy technique will help you and other members of your household communicate availability and non-availability quickly and easily!
Stay tuned to this space for: The Stop Light Technique
(You can take a break from Amazon Prime Video. It will still be there when you’ve read the article, and, you’ll be able to better communicate when people need to go away and let you watch!)
Next Up : Avoiding assumptions with the Stop Light Technique
Mandy and Marvin