Listen! Conversation through the Looking Glass

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

At an early age, we learn to speak. Shouldn’t it be a little easier to communicate with people, then? To some it seems so natural. Others never seem to get there. Why does this happen? Communication is a skill. Conflict management is a skill. As we consider what to do when it’s time to use our words we start first with our perspective.

Last time we discussed four levels of communication: the Superficial; People Places and Things; What I Value, and How Things Affect Me. One person asks a Level 4 question, the other responds with Level 2 answers. Or the listener’s nonverbal communication sends mixed signals. “Of course, I care about you!” she yells, then storms out of the room. So Step 1: identify the level of the conversation. Go deeper as necessary. Refrain from depth if the speaker will not value your vulnerability.

And when we do communicate something personal, every message we share begins interiorly, in the head or heart. It is filtered through the lens of one’s perspective and beliefs. I could have a pessimistic belief about the person (“this person is a jerk”), about people in general (“it’s practically impossible to trust anyone”), or about myself (“I’m not worth listening to”). Once passed through the lens, the message is translated to words and gestures (nonverbal communication). I may have a particular tone if I’m untrusting. I may present as unsure about my message if I doubt my ability.

Next the listener hears the message. Filtered through her perspective/belief lens, she interprets and reacts. “She is just attacking me,” or “why should I apologize?” or “this person is incompetent.” Once filtered, the message takes root in the listener’s mind. It is understood on her terms.

Being a “good listener” means awareness of your lens and the lens of the other person. It requires knowledge and thoughtfulness. First, I hold the message, listening and attending to the words in use. Before I jump to interpretation, I ask myself, “what is he really saying?” From past experiences I gain knowledge to help me better understand. “He needs to rant a little before he can calm down enough to get to the point,” or “she needs to process out loud to solve her problem.” Understanding diminishes my defensiveness. Step two: Consider what you know about your lens and the lens of the other on the given topic.

Bernard Guerney, creator of Relationship Enhancement Therapy tell us, in times of conflict, rather than focusing on what I will say next, it’s best to become the Empathizer. My sole focus is to help the Expressor (the person speaking) feel heard and understood. Impossible to do? There is so much I have wanted to say for such a long time. I’m too worked up to listen carefully. Everything he says puts me on edge.

I remind myself, if my conversational partner feels heard, he or she will be more open to what I have to say. If I’m too upset, I ask to take a break. We negotiate a good, specific time to return to the conversation. We must wait at least twenty minutes. It takes as long, if not longer for us to physically calm down from the distress.

Can’t stop feeling defensive? If I have loved and respected this person in the past, I should try to remember what it was like to feel those feelings. This is the same person, no matter what has changed. Is the conflict worth getting over? Is there some benefit to staying together? Respecting the person I’m speaking with means valuing what she feels or thinks. So I will not rush. I will listen. Step Three: Find a time when both can share and be heard.

Next week we’ll talk about what to do when you come back from that break and feel ready to fill your role as the Empathizer.

Listen! The Levels and Types of Communication

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

Communication: when it lacks, it’s one of the most common areas of relationship problems and very effective at exacerbating whatever else the problem might be. Communication is a complicated thing.

There are four levels of communication. The first is superficial communication: when you wave to someone or casually say “hi, good to see you” at the grocery store. No information is exchanged. While superficial, it’s still important. You may wave to someone, and if he looks at you but does not wave back, he’s sent a message. Maybe something is wrong; maybe he is in a hurry. If you smile at someone and she smiles back, she’s sent a message. She’s happy to see you.

The second level is “people, places, and things.” Here we exchange information like updates on the latest Netflix drama, sports scores, neighborhood gossip, describing events. It’s not personal; it’s information. This level helps build relationships. Through it we discover common interests and compatibility. It’s classic first date talk, guiding us to know if the person is approachable. Level two tells me if this is someone with whom I can go deeper.

The next level of communication is “what I value.” Conversations about common interests evolve to conversations about that which you are passionate about. As I casually share about home improvement projects, I find the person I’m speaking with is also “diy’ing it” at her house. I begin to divulge my enthusiasm for the other projects I’m planning. We’ve hit on a something I care about. Any topic you or your conversational mate feel strongly about is part of this level. A person is less likely to share his passions if he felt the door close during level one or two. Here, the first date hits if off and the couple talk for hours. It takes vulnerability and a willingness to share what you care about. Based on the other’s responses, you discover whether or not it’s safe to go to level four.

By the stereotypes, men are most comfortable in level two, and women at level four: how things affect me. Reactions, emotional or intellectual, are the basis for the fourth level of communication. Thus, a woman may grow frustrated with her partner who reports his answer to her question. She wanted to go deeper. When an event has happened, now I know where you stand. I know how it makes you feel. It is the most vulnerable level. It is the level we should share with the least amount of people.

What separates the various modes of communication (in-person, telephone, letter, email, text and social media) is the ability to read the things we communicate unconsciously with tone of voice, eye contact, posture, face expression, and other nonverbal cues. “Is it safe?” “Is she paying attention?” “Does he care about me and what’s troubling me?” “Is something the matter?”

Leaning in, looking in the eyes, facing the person, head nodding, an open posture (arms open) all communicate, “I’m open to hearing what you have to say.” Turning away, looking around, checking one’s phone, a glazed look in the eyes, arms crossed may communicate, “What you say is not important to me.” You can take control of your non-verbal cues to communicate a chosen message. If someone you care about begins speaking at level four, pay close attention to your body language so that even when you aren’t speaking, you can still tell that person how much you care.

The first three levels often come naturally. Using words in level four can get tricky. Stay tuned and next week we’ll address this crucial skill.

Taking the Chill Pill: Some Lessons in Relaxation

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

Picture yourself sitting on the beach, or in a forest if you don’t care for beaches, or at a familiar, nostalgic spot. If you imagine yourself there, what kinds of things do you see? On the beach, can you smell the salt in the air? It in the forest, do you hear the buzzing of bees? In that nostalgic spot, are you wrapped in some cozy blanket, tasting your favorite comfort food?

If you pictured yourself in a favorite spot or a dream spot, you’ve just taken a mental vacation. Learning the skill of stepping away from the present moment and engage your imagination is a relaxation tool that can be very helping in managing stress or anger.

You may or may not have heard of relaxation techniques. Maybe relaxation seems like laziness, like a lack of productivity when there is so much that needs to be done. Research continues to find more and more benefits of relaxation. To sum it up: it’s good, and we need it.

Relaxation slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, slows breathing, reduces the need for oxygen, increases blood flow to major muscles, and reduces muscle tension. So physically, it counteracts the fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and stress. Relaxation helps stop the cycle in its early phases, or limit damage in anticipation of stressful or angering triggers.

Those who learn to relax experience, in general, fewer headaches and back pain, fewer emotional responses anger or frustration, have more energy, improved concentration, greater ability to handle problems, and more efficiency in daily activities. Because emotion is physical, it takes energy to experience it. Relaxation allows that system to take a break and refresh.

You can learn relaxation techniques from a professional (complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, doctors, psychotherapists, and life coaches) or learn relaxation techniques on your own. At their core, these techniques are about refocusing your attention to something calming and increasing awareness of your body. The key to developing the skill is practicing regularly.

The mental vacation we started with is a visualization exercise. Other types include focusing on your body and focusing on deep breathing, relaxing muscle tension. The publication Real Simple provides a great guide talking you through the exercise.

Close your eyes and gently bring your lips together. Inhale through your nose. As you exhale (also through your nose), make a humming sound: “Mmmmmm.” Let this hum last as long as it is comfortable. Then inhale and repeat. Don’t try to control it too much. Just breathe in and hum out. If you try to extend the hum longer than is natural, you might tighten up. Play with the tone until you find the place where your “mmmmmm” flows out in a comfortable, lowish pitch, audible but quiet enough that no one except, say, the person right next to you on the bus would hear it. The humming breath has a way of loosening your jaw, mouth, lips, and tongue—areas that tend to tense up when you’re nervous. Once you’ve found your hum, repeat it whenever you start to feel anxious— whether you’re standing, sitting, or walking.

Progressive relaxation trains you to mentally learn how to control muscle tension. Going one-by-one, you alternate tensing and relaxing the various muscle groups twice, tensing for at least five seconds and relaxing for 30. The more you practice, the more aware you become of physical sensations. In time you can learn to choose to relax your muscles without going through each step.

Still other types include yoga, tai chi, music, exercise, meditation, hypnosis and massage. There are different principles behind each so there is no one size fits all recommendation for a whole relaxation regimen. Just like any training, start now and find yourself more prepared for when stressful, irritating or unjust moments strike.

Anger: Learning to Quell the Storm

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

While fear is related to the future, anger is caused by something in the present. At the heart of the emotion is to put an end or escape the negative thing that has or is happening.

Like the other emotions, anger is part of being human. It moves within us and we discern what to do with it. Like the virtues, experiencing anger in appropriate amounts, leads to being good-tempered. We should get angry when the situation calls for it. Too much or too little indicates a problem.

Do you think you might have a problem with anger? Some people get angry too quickly, with the wrong people or at the wrong times, even though the anger calms quickly, it may be a problem. Some are ready to be angry with everything and at every occasion. There are those who are difficult to appease. Their anger seems to last forever. Or they repress it and sulk. Then there are those who get angry at the wrong things, or overreact and then stay angry until they can get back at the other person.

If you feel angry, you might listen to the argument to a point, but mishear it, feeling insulted where no insult exists.

Anger comes out of sadness. A difficulty occurs. Giving in leads to sadness. Moving to attack leads to anger. One of the first steps to overcoming anger is to focus on the enduring pain/emotion. What hurts to most?

When experiencing anger, you can either express it, suppress it, or calm it. Taking time to think about the core emotion is an act of calming the anger.

Increasing emotional awareness gives you the opportunity to learn to regulate emotion. Reflection leads to discovered meaning. You can learn to transform that emotion. It can’t just disappear. Like energy it can only be converted. Anger can transform to sadness or shame or compassion (the core emotion).

If you’re angry with the person, try empathizing. What might she be feeling? What could his motivation be? Empathy means picturing yourself in the other person’s shoes, with his perspective or background. You may respond differently to a situation, but empathy means seeing how her reaction was understandable for her.

If you find, even after reflection, that there was no misinterpretation on your part, that what happened was wrong, you were wronged, learning to express your feeling or experience in a clear and effective way will help satisfy your anger. It won’t erase the wrongdoing. Only forgiveness will help you to fully let go and move on.

In the mean time, some strategies to help manage anger include relaxation exercises, re-framing how you view the situation (empathy, alternative explanations), problem solving, better communication, using humor (not sarcasm), and changing your environment. There is a lot to be said for taking a twenty-minute break to cool down in the heart of an argument. Emotions are physical. Stepping away from the trigger will help calm the fight-or-flight mechanism that urges you to fight.

The earlier you can break the anger cycle, the better. Challenge the thoughts that trigger anger. You can talk yourself down as a friend might thinking to yourself, “calm down,” “relax,” “there might be another explanation.”

Give due justice by acknowledging when it’s reasonable that you are frustrated. Reflecting after an anger episode can help you build awareness to what words or actions trigger your anger. It can also help you avoid saying or doing things in the heat of anger. Everyone has an anger cycle. Try to draw yours on a piece of paper.

Venting anger won’t necessarily make you feel better (complaining, hitting things), but if you feel yourself losing control, it is always better to exercise your anger-energy in a safe way that does hurt people or property.

Of whom should I be afraid? At the heart of fear

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016

To talk about goals, we must talk about the essential step of identifying obstacles. Obstacles may be concrete (not enough money), personal (procrastination) or harder to trace (fear of failure).

Fear is an emotion. We don’t make it happen. It happens to us. It can occur because of a personal belief, a necessary decision, or before we’ve even had a chance to think. Once it happens, we can use our thinking to increase or decrease the emotion. Cognitive therapy uses this technique to help lessen fear.

Fear has to do with the future, a fear of something that is difficult or impossible to overcome. With fear, there is also a feeling of hope of escape. If we didn’t hope that there is some way out, we’d feel depressed or despair.

Because of this difference, fear itself is not a bad thing. It can push us towards caution or towards action, depending on the difficulty.

In psychology, fear is considered from a biological and cognitive perspective (our bodies and our thinking). The fight or flight mechanism moves our bodies to action by raising heart rate, tightening muscles, and shortening breathing when the mind perceives some threat. As pure instinct, this happens without any thought. If while camping, Joe encounters a bear, his body is ready to save him, perhaps even before he’s fully aware of how dangerous the situation is. We still may experience fear without a physical threat. The same mechanism occurs. If you can’t always run or fight, the physical reaction may turn to anxiety.

If you feel fear or anxiety, ask yourself, what am I afraid to lose? It could be an opportunity, a loved one, reputation, security or many other possibilities. The answer tells us something about our values. Times of crisis reveal what matters most. Day-to-day anxiety can tell us the same.

Fear can transfer from the thing we fear to lose to the person or thing that makes us afraid. This is called transference. If I fear loss of safety, I become afraid of the aggressor. If I fear loss of love (rejection), I may fear confronting my partner. Naming the fear on the deepest level and acknowledging any transference that has occurred with help develop the thought process needed to work through, plan and possibly face the fear.

Sometimes we’re afraid because the thing we fear just seems so much bigger than us. Its magnitude implies its power. It implies we have less control. Ask yourself, how much control do I have in this situation?

There may resources or training available to empower you. Knowledge may help you face it. Reassessing values, contemplating such concepts as the meaning of life and death may help. Something as simple as the support of a friend, or knowing another has faced what you face now, can give you the strength and courage to know that the thing you are afraid is not as powerful as it feels.

Fear is natural and part of the human experience. Nevertheless, one may lose his ability to judge the appropriate amount of fear for a situation. Small things may seem bigger than they are, more dangerous even though the place is safe. It might become frightful to meet new people or go to a new place. In this case, the fear is disordered. If severe enough, the person may suffer from an anxiety disorder.

To maintain balance, when you fear afraid or anxious, ask yourself, “what am I afraid of losing?” Consider if the fear is realistic or not, and what would happen if you really lost it. It might not be as bad as you fear.

Inside Out: Drawing Attention to the Face of Emotion

We have to face our emotions. The wide range of emotions shape our experiences and who we are in good and complex ways. Pixar’s recent film, Inside Out, illustrates the beautiful mess that is our emotions. In it we see the emotions personified, vying for the right way to handle a situation, one taking over when the others can see no other way, pushing in at times. Joy’s childlike optimism runs the show until the time comes when Joy can no longer be the solo player, allowing the other emotions only supporting roles. There comes a time when sadness is inevitable, and facing sadness, facing the situation for the badness of the situation has merit, and empathy can heal us enough to help us move forward, returning us to joy.

The film highlights the fundamental emotions that come with being human: joy, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust. Research has shown these to be universal, recognizable face expression across cultures. Joy is the optimist, and Sadness is the pessimist. Anger interprets situations as slights to self, judging negatively the motives of others. Disgust finds initial dislike in all things, but is also able to finely tune the subject’s taste to a more refined pallet, be it a good outfit or aversion to broccoli. Fear creates caution, but also panic. Part of the process in the film, is the move on the part of Joy to understand the role and value of Sadness, who from the beginning seems only to thwart Joy’s efforts at making the subject happy.

Perennial philosophers referred to these emotions as passions, movements within us that happen separate from our will. I do not choose to be sad when a bad thing happens. We first experience the passion and then use our minds and desire to either advance, retreat or reshape the emotion. I choose how I react to sadness.

Emotion occurs as a learned response or as an innate reaction to a stimulus. We experience a natural disgust to large numbers of maggots. We have a natural fear of snakes. Hormones can move emotion within us. The flux of hormones for women at moments in her menstrual cycle may cause unexplained anger or sadness. Oxytocin is release when a person looks at or holds an infant, creating a sensation of joy.

Since we share emotions with animals, it is our ability to make a choice in reaction to the emotion that separates us from the animals. Men in a sudden state of anger are expected to refrain from attacking another person. People are expected to choose a better way when attracted to someone who is not their spouse. We see the raw emotion and inability to regulate in toddlers. In the face of a toddler tantrum, one may think, “if only he could understand.” But understanding comes with age and maturity.

When we gain that understanding, our emotions can become powerful tools. As the body uses pain to tell us something is wrong, so the “negative” emotions can communicate the same. Disgust to protect us from poison, fear to protect us from danger. There are experiences in life that are unfair. Anger can motivate us to act for the sake of justice. Sadness can push us reach out to others.

If only it were so simple. Experiences may condition us to overreact or under react to situations, like nerves deadened through trauma. We may not experience fear when we ought, and be more risky than is wise. In the coming posts, I discuss each emotion in greater depth, how it can go array and ways to manage the emotion when the reaction it motivates is less than virtuous. Stay tuned.

Meet the Coach: How Life Coaching Works

Previously we discussed what therapy is and how it overlaps with life coaching. Now we’ll take a look at what life coaching is all about. A life coach provides guidance and resources, helping the client understand his or her motivation or lack of motivation and how change works. When we change, we follow common stages of change (academically referred to as the Transtheoretical Model of Change).

When we are in need of change, we start these stages unaware of that need (pre-contemplation stage). We gradually begin to consider our need for change, think about the problem, and grow in motivation (contemplation stage). Sooner or later, we begin preparing for change, creating a plan (preparation stage). We may not yet be ready for action, but we lay the groundwork in these stages.

When we feel ready, the action stage begins. Steps may be taken with great energy. People may ask, “what took so long?” This was part of a normal process. If action is taken too soon, we may fall back prematurely and not make the progress intended.

Intense action can only last so long before the focus shifts from radical change to maintaining the ground covered (maintenance stage). Excitement may wane; motivation may decrease. You might fall back into old habits, returning to the pre-contemplation stage and repeat the cycle or you’ll remain consistent and not return to the old behavior.

The first time around, latter is rare. It is much more common to experience the stages again and again as a cycle that spirals upward towards the ideal life. Knowing this can help protect you from discouragement.

Life coaching is future focused. Considering these stages, the life coach will help you gain awareness during the contemplation stage; help make the plan, considering the obstacles in the preparation stage; support, encourage and celebrate with you during the action stage; and help you keep perspective and energy during the maintenance stage. Should you return to the pre-contemplation stage, the life coach is available, to remind you that change takes time, you have what it takes to pick up and try again.

When you sit down with a life coach, you’ll share what is happening in your life and what brought you to life coaching. The focus shifts to developing your vision of an ideal life. Next, the life coach will work with you to develop SMART goals to get you there. As sessions continue, the life coach helps keep you accountable to the goals you’ve develop, acts as a sounding board for new ideas, and provide support, encouragement, and trouble shooting as needed. It can focus on personal, relational or professional goals. It picks up where therapy leaves off, or supplements the therapeutic efforts without involving insurance companies.

Life coaching is a great option for want to stay future and solution-focused and for those who have not experience past trauma. Like therapy, sessions take place individually or in groups. It can be in person, over the phone, or online.

It is different from working with a consultant, who tells you what you should do. It is different from working with a mentor who becomes part of your life. The life coach stands a part from stay objective, helps you sort through resources and information, using the art of life coaching to make recommendations of what would work best for you. You don’t have to work alone.

The duration for life coaching varies by client needs. You may have a time bound change you are working through, such as moving homes or finding a new job, and need help managing stress and meeting goals. You may have many goals you want to achieve that cover broad categories. You move from one area to the next with your life coach. Services can range from a few months to over a year, depending on these factors.