Why This Works
Humans Start Life with Ineffective ConditioningWe all come to relationships with some ineffective, fear-based conditioning that we learned at an early age when our survival depended on our caregivers knowing how to meet our needs and being willing to do so. Our biology insures that, when we have an unmet need, we feel tension. It motivates us to fight, flee or freeze. When we have an unmet need, we're in pain, either physically or psychologically or both. The pain captures our attention, and we feel an urgency to stop it – to resolve the tension, to return to homeostasis (comfort). When we were immature, we cried and displayed anger as a way of getting a caregiver's attention to our unmet need. During our infancy, someone else is responsible for making us feel better. As we mature, we learn how to soothe ourselves and to be responsible for creating fulfilling experiences for ourselves as well as for others. We improve our own conditioning by choosing behaviors that produce better outcomes.
Maturity = Holding TensionMaturity is the ability to hold tension without impulsively discharging it – to consider a wider field of more effective responses when we experience pain or dissonance. As we mature, we learn that 1) expressing our pain sometimes alienates people whose cooperation is essential to our well-being, and 2) we're actually better at creating a comprehensive solution to the root cause for our pain than others may be if we step out of a point of view that's limited by the pain and tension of a threatening situation.
If we tamp down an immediate feeling of fear by taking an action that discharges some tension but compromises our long-term interests, we're creating outcomes that raise fearful feelings more often or at a higher level of discomfort. Maturity is postponing the discharge of tension – for example, by venting our discomfort at someone we care about – so there's time to craft a more effective response.
Holding the Tension of Unmet NeedsConflict arises when our conditioning tells us that we are unlikely to have an important need met because our partner is unlikely to support us ably in fulfilling that need. When we react out of fear or anger, our partner's fearful conditioning may be triggered. They are likely to perceive that we are less able to support them in getting their needs met. That perception and our impulsive responses tend to escalate the tension and conflict on both sides. When we respond to each other out of fear or anger, our ability to listen, to understand, and to validate our partner's experience is severely compromised, especially if we disagree with them. Responding out of fear or anger tends to alienate the people whose cooperation we need to feel fulfilled in our life. (Look at relationships in the Middle East or liberal-versus-conservative political conflict in the USA.)
Of course, we all have rationalizations and justifications for wanting to explain what other people need to do differently to please us and for trying to manipulate their choices. It's how our families taught us to transact. We all learned immature, ineffective, competitive communication behaviors at home, on the school bus, on the playground, and in dating. So it's understandable when people exhibit those behaviors. With Nourishing Feedback, we're offering an educational alternative – a more effective way to engage the higher mental and emotional functions with a model that has worked to resolve conflicts for many couples.
Resolve Tension with MaturityThe Nourishing Feedback model is a mature way to resolve tension. It engages our prefrontal cortex and our sense of self-responsibility and gives us a script or model for responding in a way that is less likely to trigger the other person's fight-flee-freeze response. When we are considering a more complex array of options and needs – our partner's and our own – we are less reactive in an instinctive, self-protective way. We slow down the process and widen our perception. We give our higher mental functions time to participate, to moderate our fearful and angry impulses, and to comprehend our long-term best interests as we address the immediate pains and problems that are creating tension within us and between us.
When we are operating from our higher mental functions rather than reacting out of fear born from traumas in the past, we are more able to process sensory input about what's really happening now. When we react impulsively out of fear or anger, we are almost always compromising our long-term best interests for a perceived gain in the form of some short-term reduction in tension or pain relief. Discharging tension for short-term pain relief often causes more pain. Alcoholism exemplifies this pattern. Hitting family members exemplifies this pattern. Withholding love and affection may give us an illusion of safety or control or may help us believe that we're changing someone's behavior with negative reinforcement; however, any short-term discharge of tension or pain relief is usually purchased at the cost of greater deprivation of what we truly need to create comfort and fulfillment in our life.
Communicate from a Position of Self-Responsibility, Respect and EmpathyThe position of self-responsibility says, "I am 100% responsible for my experiences and for my behaviors." How I interpret what happens to me is my responsibility. I'm the only person with sovereignty over my responses, internally and externally. Despite the perceptual mistake made in our common culture, nobody can make me feel anything. (As Byron Katie puts it, "Nobody can hurt me. That's my job.") It's my responsibility to handle my experience. Others may offer to help me, and I'm often most effective when I engage others in co-creating a fulfilling experience. When I ask for help from the place of humble authenticity and self-responsibility, others are likely to want to help me (or at least those whose humanity I can trust). When I ask for help in a demanding way or with the belief or implication that the other person has an obligation to change their behavior for my benefit, their most natural, human response is to go to "shields up!"
When you make "I" statements -- e.g., "I feel sad" -- it arouses my curiosity and compassion. When you make "you" statements – e.g., "You're not treating me with respect" -- it arouses my defenses. This is basic human nature. If you want my respect and empathy, your best strategy is to treat me with respect and empathy.
Some people manipulate the I-statement concept by saying, "I feel like you're being inconsiderate" ... or worse. They're hiding the wolf of a "you" statement in the sheep's clothing of an "I" statement. The "you" part of the statement is an interpretation, a judgment, a projection. You can observe my observable behavior with your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. Only I can possibly know or say what my intentions are, what my thoughts are, what my considerations are. That is my business. Your experiences – your sensations, emotions, intentions, interpretations, judgments – are your business. "You" statements violate a boundary. "You" statements put your nose into my business. "You" statements are how most people bring themselves to conflict-oriented communication with others. It's what we learned from our families and our culture, so it's statistically normal, but it's severely ineffective. Making a "you" statement is a good way to start a fight, especially if you're feeling angry, sad or scared. "You" statements come from a place of insecurity and immaturity compared to the more powerful and effective stance of an "I" statement.
Communicate from Conscious Vulnerability rather than from Unconscious Power DynamicsIf you want me to respond with compassion and curiosity, stay with your sensations and your emotions -- sad, mad, glad, scared, or overwhelmed. That's the whole list. Feel them in your body and give them a voice. This is difficult and scary because we feel vulnerable when we expose our real nature to others. We're risking invalidation or attack. But it's a far more effective way to get the kind of response we want from another person. Let your body express your emotions in an organic way while you hold responsibility for your experience.
Here's an example. Imagine a significant other tells you that they're going out of town for a while, leaving tonight. You might say, "Oh! You'll be gone for several days? I don't know why you're leaving or when I'll see you again, and I'm feeling sad and scared because I delight in being with you, and I want you to be here for Pat's birthday. When will I see you again?" What if they don't want you to know why they're leaving? What if they don't plan to come back? What if something has changed profoundly in how they feel about the relationship? These are unsettling questions that create tension. Speaking these questions exposes your vulnerability. When viewed from an awareness of power dynamics, there's a risk that the other person will see you as weak, disrespect you, and take advantage of your weakness. So often we don't take the risk of showing how deeply affected we are by the behavior of the other person because we're trying to avoid an experience of being taken advantage of. And if we don't give voice to our vulnerability, the other person has no way of knowing why we're appearing withdrawn. If they don't ask for clarity about their perception that we've withdrawn in some way because they don't want to appear weak or vulnerable, we're in an escalating cycle of disconnection.
Disconnection is the normal consequence of reacting from an unconscious consideration of power dynamics rather than from conscious awareness of how to maintain connection through compassionate communication based on an acceptance of vulnerability – ours and the other person's.
Here's another example: In the middle of a conversation with her boyfriend, a friend of mine ask him, "Where did you go?" The situation and implication was that she sensed that her boyfriend's attention had wandered away from her or from whatever they were discussing. The boyfriend replied, "Why do you want to know?" and it went downhill from there. Later, my friend asked me what I saw in the downward trajectory of their dynamic. I told here that, to a man, a question like "Where did you go?" feels like an intrusion with an intent to judge him or educate him (or manipulate him). Looking at the unconscious power dynamic, it appeared to her boyfriend (and to me) that she was implicitly claiming a right to know how he was managing his attention and to have an opinion about it – that is, she wanted him to be accountable to her for where he was directing his attention. She told me that her intention had been to demonstrate an interest in his priorities at that moment. What I recommended was to handle that kind of situation with an "I" statement and a question that implied empathy more than judgment: "I'm feeling some distance or a disconnect right now. Will you share with me what's on your mind?" That's coming from a more respectful and empathetic position. It's less likely to trigger a self-protective response. It offers him an opportunity to just say, "No" if he's feeling too vulnerable to reveal the content of his mind to her at that time.
Sometimes, we need some time to process how we're feeling before we put our thoughts into words, and this is particularly true for men. It's sensible and compassionate to give the other person the space to process their experience on their own terms and on their own schedule. It's sensible to ask the other person when would be the best time to continue the conversation if there is something emotionally challenging about it for them. Asking for an appointment to talk is a skillful way of starting the conversation by creating an agreement.
(You might appreciate a recently adopted policy about how I manage my attention: As a courtesy, I never send or receive text messages or e-mails or phone calls in the presence of a woman unless I receive her permission first.)
How to Create AgreementIf we dump responsibility for our discomfort onto another person, it's like handing them our hot potato. It's just as hot to them, and they can't eat it for us anyway. So it's an ineffective attempt to reduce our tension at their expense, creating a cycle of disconnection. For example, "You're abandoning me! How can you be so cruel as to leave town without telling me first?! I'll miss my doctor's appointment this afternoon, and you'll miss Pat's birthday!" "Honey, my boss broke her leg on the sales trip. She needs me to complete the mission. I just learned about it today, so I'm telling you now. I'll be back in time for Pat's birthday."
If discharging our tension by handing the other person our hot potato isn't effective, what can we do when we're feeling stressed? A more effective and respectful way of realizing an outcome we want is to create an agreement with the other person based on the fulfillment of the needs of both parties. Sometimes when we perceive a conflict with another person, the best solution is for one of us to compromise having our needs met in this particular instance so we can have our needs met at the other person's expense in another instance. Sometimes, this can work if there's a win in the deal for both parties, but often the delayed compromise conflicts with other priorities at the time, so the deal falls through and creates even more tension.
Frequently, there's a third alternative that enables both people to have their needs met through a novel solution. For example, he might say, "Honey, how about if I leave for the airport after you return from your doctor's appointment. I can take the red-eye flight and still get there in time for the sales call at noon. Or I can get up at 4:00 a.m. for an early-morning flight." (That's the I'll-compromise solution.) Or she might say, "Actually, I found out I can reschedule my appointment to a time when I can drop Pat at Mother's while I'm nearby." (That's the virtually-no-compromise solution.)