A high percentage of the couples who come to see me are seeking tools on how to communicate more effectively. And while this may be an important part of what they are needing, what is also frequently at play has little to do with communication and more to do with a lack of humility—a lack that creates a barrier to effective couples communication.
Let’s examine how this plays itself out.
How to Communicate More Effectively: The Golden Rule of Empathy
You’ve probably heard the adage, “walk a mile in my shoes” – which can be thought of as the mantra of empathic understanding and communication. Central to empathy is the ability to put your feelings, opinions, and perspectives aside to the degree that this is possible and once these are cleared away, attempt to wedge yourself into another’s experience. See and experience the world through the eyes of another, especially if you are about to judge this person.
As writer Charles D’Ambrosio so eloquently puts it: “…first you sympathize, then you judge—that’s the complex human response. You sympathize first, and until that happens, you don’t understand anything.”
Practicing empathy in this way can interrupt any negative cycles of communication that might be consuming your relationship.
But this type of empathic listening isn’t always easy to achieve, especially when you have strong feelings that are verging on defensive indignation (the I’m totally right and how dare you challenge me stance that many of us are all too familiar with). Strong emotions have the potential to keep us internally closed off to the opinions and viewpoints of another.
It’s as if we have an internal landing strip ready to receive our partner’s message, and once the message safely lands, it can be examined and considered, and if needed, we may adjust our behavior accordingly. But there are times when our emotional reactions shut down our inner landing strip (like an internal emotional blizzard) and as a result, all incoming messages are turned away. Keeping ourselves open during these intense emotional gusts is the challenge we all face. And there are those moments, after some time has passed and we’ve settled, that we slowly create an inner clearing so that our partner’s message can be received.
How to Communicate Effectively: Why Humility Is Central
Regulating our emotions is just part of what is needed for true empathy. The other skill that we need to practice is humility. Humility, to be humble, is to let go of any feelings of superiority or importance. Why is it necessary to humble yourself in this way?
Without humility, empathy simply becomes a rote exercise that couples practice, an exercise that never gets truly internalized into the relationship landscape. I’ve seen this occur time and time again. All too often, couples practice empathy in my office in a very mechanical way, never really allowing themselves to “feel” the other’s experience, at some level holding onto their own experience/perspective as superior even as they try to envision what their partner is going through.
This pseudo-empathy is a house of cards that collapses sooner or later and as a result, the couple is back to their defensive dance, a dance occurring to the dissonance of misunderstanding and not feeling listened to.
But when we practice humility, we start to believe and feel that our experience is no more legitimate or truthful than our partner’s. When we humble ourselves in this way, a new world is opened to the relationship. A new dance starts to occur, one with music in the background instead of harsh dissonance. A relationship pattern that is based upon true listening; true curiosity for the other’s experience; a true openness to how you are impacting one another. This, of course, sounds good on paper, but it is difficult to practice at times—especially during conflict and during those times when we feel justified in our anger and hurt.
But here is something to consider: Your partner may feel just as justified in his/her feelings at the same time that you are basking in your indignation. This is why negative cycles become so intractable—you are both absolutely certain that the other is being unreasonable (and that your subjective truth is more justified than the other’s). Here is where humility comes in, stepping down from your defensive high horse to understand that your partner feels just as mistreated or misunderstood as you do.
So are you ready to practice humility and empathy together?
Remember, humility starts with you; don’t wait for your partner to show humility in order to respond in kind. Set the humility pace rather than following your partner’s lead, and you will become responsible for creating a relationship landscape that welcomes empathy and emotional connection.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured photo courtesy of Archipoch at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)