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How are you?

helloMany times a day we may walk past an acquaintance and say, “Hi, how are you?” The other person smiles, says, “good and you?” And we likely respond similarly. Are we both always good? That’s a rhetorical question of course. A few years ago I was taking a walk on my way for a cup of coffee. I encountered a parking attendant with whom I was familiar outside of a neighborhood restaurant I frequented. This gentleman and I had a number of engaging conversations in the past and so I asked the predictable, “How are you doing Jacques?” He smiled and said, “I can’t complain.” I smiled back and continued on my walk.

Moments later I had a thought. His answer might suggest two different things. Either Jacques has nothing to complain about or he literally couldn’t allow himself to complain, emphasis on the word, can’t. I wondered which was the case. In a few minutes, coffee now in hand, I reencountered him. I explained to him that I wasn’t sure if he meant all was well or that he was uncomfortable complaining. It took quite awhile to break through his resistance until he finally said, “I don’t share my struggles because no one would be interested.”

I explained to Jacques that when I asked how he was, I did care and truly wanted to know. When we greet one another and robotically inquire as to how we’re doing, without either party answering honestly, it becomes an exercise in inauthenticity. We act as uncaring strangers. We cut ourselves off from human interaction.  We can do much better than that. Jacque’s belief that no one would care is of course false. I did. It may be that many wouldn’t care, but why preclude those who might?

To be true to yourself, you need to be authentic. Without going into details, your answer might sound like, “I’ve had better days.” That opens the door to a genuine interaction. You never know what might evolve from that. But at the least, you’re being honest with yourself. It’s really important to be authentic no matter what you expect from another person.

 

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The 5% Rule — Breaking Through the Argument

 

failed communicationargumentEarly in my career as a therapist, I found myself feeling frustrated in my ability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were tirelessly mired in argument and it was like watching a Ping-Pong ball being knocked back and forth, only no points were being won or lost. This kind of flailing about represents the low point in so many of our relationships. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other – to get past their gridlock. In the midst of one session, I reflected for a moment on how I might approach their impasse differently. I’ve learned that when I pause, get out of my own way and set my intention for an insight, it often appears. This was such a moment.

It came in the form of my asking the husband, John, (I’ve changes their names of course to protect their confidentiality) “Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look for just 5% you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95% you’re sure she’s wrong about.”

I was asking John to go against the grain and act counter-intuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to John that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering, the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that they could hear each other. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action.

I noticed that Barbara barely paused, as she was about to go right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently, suggesting to her that she reflect for a moment about how it felt to be at least partially validated. Somewhat begrudgingly she offered, “I appreciate your caring about my feelings and seeing that you did hurt me.” I then asked Barbara to validate some part of John’s issues with her and as she did so, they began to turn the corner. Their energy began to shift. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call “The 5% Rule.”

Even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you are hearing from the other person, you can ordinarily find some small content that you can acknowledge. We typically marginalize if not ignore this part because our automatic default is grounded in the right vs. wrong battle. Out thoughts seek to refute rather than confirm. Even though we say we care about each other we don’t act lovingly.

If we break free from the insane goal of winning an argument and try to find something in what the other person is saying that we might concur with, the results can be astonishing. After all, if you need to “win” that means the other person must “lose.” How do you think that works out in relationships?

Once your partner feels heard and moreover affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot just say, “Yes, but…” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, affirm something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back and forth of argumentation. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange. If you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous.

Affirming the 5% in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95% with which you disagree. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to take in what you have to say. This process permits us to halt our addiction to being reactive and move toward being responsive. The success of this approach allows both parties to behave with compassion and empathy, cooperating rather than competing. The goal is not to win but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% Rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend or relative or a business relationship.

Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then open to what you have to say. What you want the other person to hear is very important! But you need to set the stage so to speak so they can take it in. From there a healthy communication might emerge. We must interrupt the compulsion to be right and our default to being reactive. When we react in an adversarial way without pausing to reflect we are just as the Ping-Pong ball. Our reactions –by definition — are not well considered or purposeful.

The 5% Rule is just the first of many steps on the road toward attaining excellent interpersonal skills. Developing these tools allow our relationships to prosper. Just as relationship skills and emotional intelligence ought to be core educational requirements, communication mastery should be the bedrock of any life that aspires to happiness, success, and fulfillment. It’s vital that we learn the necessary nuances and skills of communication so that our words may actually be heard.

 

Learn about Mel’s live, interactive online workshop — Mastering your Communication Skills: Breaking Through to the Other Side.

 

mel photo 3Mel Schwartz, LCSW MPhil is a psychotherapist, couples counselor, and author practicing in Westport, CT, Manhattan and globally by Skype. He earned his graduate degree from Columbia University. Mel’s approaches assist people in working through limitations, activating defining moments, and embracing life’s uncertainties. His methods strengthen communication, create resilient relationships, build authentic self-esteem, and enable us to overcome anxiety and depression. Mel has written The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion and the forthcoming The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love(Sounds True, Fall 2017). He’s authored 100+ articles – read by over 1 million readers – for Psychology Today and his blog, Illuminating the Possibilities. Mel works with clients globally via skype. He can be reached at Mel@melschwartz.com 
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Be the Change You Seek in the Other

quantum entanglement

Few things are as common to our relationships as our asking for, if not demanding, change from one another. These may begin as requests and over time descend into full-blown demands as frustrations arise and hostility grows. The ensuing adversarial energy then often pits each party into a defensive posture whereby conciliation and cooperation retreat and the impasse is fortified. What begins as an earnest request for change devolves into a mindless tit-for-tat exchange. Picture each person with their arms folded in front of them saying, “Why should I go first, when you have done such and such to me?” This leads to stagnation, if not an outright death knell for the relationship. Read more

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Being Heard: Breaking Through the Impasse

troubleIn my last post, Silence: A Relationship Killer, we explored the ruinous consequences that intentional silence has on relationships. Silence is antithetical to healthy communicating. Very often people may resort to silence because they anticipate that what they need to say will fall on deaf ears or, worse still, invite an angry reaction. Anticipating that roadblock, we may choose silence. There is a better way, however. Let’s look at how we can navigate these sensitive communications successfully.

When we initiate a challenging discussion, it’s more than likely that the other party may not truly be listening. Their negative reaction may be triggered by specific words or topics, our tone, or body language, but it is most likely anchored in the memory of past impasses and unresolved conflicts. More often than not, the other person appears to be defending their territory and preparing their rebuttal while we’re still trying to articulate our thoughts, and vice-versa of course. Your sentence may not be complete before the other person’s reaction has begun. The futility of not being heard becomes a primary reason why people may default to silence. Read more

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Silence: A Relationship Killer

How-to-End-your-RelationshipOver the many years that I’ve been practicing therapy, I’ve found that couples that are struggling in their relationships often succumb to the default mode of silence. Sometimes, it’s one person who defers to the unspoken, and at times it’s actually both. In either circumstance, such silence – not a healthy pause or meditative break – speaks to the absence of verbal and emotional intimacy. Unless we’re communicating on levels of extra sensory perception or body language, words are the only tools available to us to communicate let alone resolve our issues. There’s little sense to being in a relationship and resorting to silence. Not only does it sabotage the lifeline of a healthy coupling, it chokes your expressive needs.

When you can express what you’re feeling – in the moment that you’re experiencing it – there’s much less likelihood that you’ll act out on that feeling. Problematic feelings that go unexpressed tend to percolate and boil over – they take on energy of their own, and the ensuing conflict hours or days later may have little correlation to the original emotional insult. When this occurs there’s little chance of being validated, as there may be little correspondence between your hurt feelings and the disruption of the moment.

Telling someone that you feel angry, and explaining why you do, will ordinarily sever the reactive state of being angry or acting angrily. Furthermore, the non-verbalization and suppression of your feelings will – over time – result in substantial resentment, with the accompanying behavior that we might expect. If you don’t share your problematic feelings, there is a great probability that you’ll act out on them, in any number of unrelated ways. Having done so, you now become the problem in the other’s eyes. We’ve now entered into a negative spiral of silence and struggle

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Freeing Yourself from the Grip of Low Self-Esteem

self-esteem-wordleTo further our exploration of developing authentic self-esteem, I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Self-Esteem Workshop, a live, interactive videoconference, beginning Tuesday, August 13th.

In my previous articles in this series on self-esteem, we’ve considered how low self-worth surfaces as an array of psychological, emotional, and relationship challenges, and then we looked at how we misunderstand what we actually mean by self-esteem, seeking it in futile ways. We’ll now turn our attention to how we can free ourselves from the debilitating grip of self-denigrating beliefs and thoughts that script those lives tragically limited by low self-esteem.

I often assist my therapy clients in surfacing and articulating their core beliefs about themselves. Subtle or overt messages or treatment, typically in childhood, set up and mold our sense of self. Those who struggle with their self-worth have invariably secured negative imprints of themselves. These themes may play out in one’s head as “I’m not lovable,” or  “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or simply ”I’m a loser.” Once we internalize these messages, we integrate these beliefs deeply in our psyche. The beliefs become self-fulfilling. Our potential as human beings collapses and narrows as our limiting beliefs of self become our truth. And we act out our lives correspondingly. Read more

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Self Esteem or Other Esteem?

woman-low-self-esteemIn my previous article, Self-Esteem: A Missed Diagnosis, I proposed that a devaluation of one’s self lies at the heart of most psychological and emotional disorders. Let’s now explore more deeply what the term self-esteem denotes and come to appreciate what we mean by it as well as what gets in our way of attaining it.

I have come to believe that the way the term self-esteem is used is actually a misnomer. The first half of the expression, self, would seem to indicate that esteem, the second half of the expression, is derived from one’s self. Yet if we look closer, we find that most people seek a sense of worthiness from that which lies outside of them. For a student, it might come from good grades; for a businessperson or worker, it’s derived from a promotion or a raise; and for most individuals, praise or acknowledgement provide a temporary increase in esteem. Our society generates billions of dollars in revenues from inducing people to seek the quick fix of vanity as a means toward feeling better. Yet none of these actually contribute one iota to self-esteem. Ironically, they may even get in the way.

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Low Self-Esteem: A Missed Diagnosis

low self esteem

According to the National Institute of Health, one in every two Americans will ultimately be diagnosed with some form of mental illness. What’s behind this staggering rate of malaise? Aside from the psychiatric/pharmaceutical collusion that tends to overly pathologize normal life challenges and transmute them into mental illness, I’d offer that the primary culprit is low self-esteem. Yet the DSM – the psychiatric bible for diagnosis – offers no diagnosis of self-esteem. My experience informs me that marginal self-worth manifests through an array of dysfunction, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, ADHD, codependence, failed relationships and, even more tragically, lives lived out in mediocrity.

We focus on the more specific diagnosable illnesses that result from marginal self-worth because we have medications that treat them, notwithstanding their questionable results. But there is no pill to offer someone with low self-worth, so there’s no revenue to be generated. Moreover, as a culture, our intellectual proclivity is to focus on the symptom and disregard the underlying and perhaps complex circumstances that contribute to the devolving of a human life. This is due to our drive to over simplify and seek quick solutions to the very complex tapestry of a human life.

 

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Would You Like to Be the Partner I Want You to Be?

In my role as a relationship therapist, I’ve begun prompting couples to ask their partners, “Would you like to be the person that I’m asking you to change into? Would you like to be the partner that I want you to be?”

This type of inquiry quiets the tired back and forth, right and wrong ping ponging that gets us nowhere. It’s not uncommon to ask your partner to make changes in their beliefs, attitudes, or behavior to accommodate your wishes. Very often, though, this is met by an entrenched resistance from the person being asked to change. You should ask yourself if you’re resisting simply for the sake of resisting, or would the requested change be consistent with your own growth and personal evolution?

If what is being requested seems authentic and resonant with your growth, and you are nevertheless resisting, then you might want to pay attention to why you’re digging your heels in. If you’re caught up in the power struggle and keeping a scorecard of offenses, the path to amicability remains obstructed; the larger picture is surely being missed.

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A Radical Reality

To this day, quite possibly the most provocative, if not astounding, discovery of modern science remains relatively obscure to the general public. This is, perhaps, due to how greatly it shatters our myth of reality – and, subsequently, our understanding of how we picture reality operating. This startling new worldview has been too radical for us to feel comfortable truly considering. For if we did, it would compel us to drastically reframe our thinking and our lives. Yet, by doing so, our lives would likely become unburdened and flourish.

For the most part, we have envisioned reality based upon the themes that Sir Isaac Newton postulated back in the seventeenth century. Newton constructed a machine-like model of the world, which is comprised of separate and distinct objects, disconnected from one other, interacting only through cause and effect. This picture of reality, operating as a giant machine, shackles our lives like little else. The depiction is absent any scintilla of meaning or purpose, as we become the cogs in the machine, detached from one other and the universe at large. This image is also devoid of any sense of relatedness, as separation becomes the essence of the Newtonian worldview. This paradigm leaves us humans as strangers in a mechanical universe, whereby isolation is the primary motif. Epidemics of depression are the inevitable result of this scenario. From this filter we experience a vast array of struggle and malaise. Many of our ensuing challenges and conflicts can be derived from this misunderstanding of reality. Yet there is now ample evidence to drastically reconsider how we look at the bigger picture. Read more

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