Category Archives: Relationship Problems

Why communicating with others can be so difficult

I am often reminded of the difficulty in communicating our needs, and getting the response that we wish for. I speak with a lot of people who talk about not feeling understood by others. Or they feel that their feelings are being dismissed, ignored or made to feel unimportant. It is a profoundly difficult task – to speak with someone we are close with and get the response that we are hoping for. My experience tells me that there are four main points where this could fall apart.

1. The first and second part are quite similar yet discrete. To be able to communicate our needs we need to first know how we are feeling. And that is not at all simple. It is all too common to be aware of what we are thinking but less common to know what we are feeling. I love working with people where this is the focus, because it is under-rated and overlooked. It often takes people by surprise. “I feel bad” — but what does that really mean? Is it loneliness, rejection, sadness, fear, concern? And how do you know that? How does it feel in the body? Counselling is a great place to build a useful emotional vocabulary and bodily awareness, which leads onto the second point.

2. Communicating our needs also requires the right words, timing and presentation. We need to explain it well so that someone else can stand a better chance of understanding us. You might know that feeling intimately, that it is a sadness that needs reassurance from a parent. But you can’t find the right words. This can often be quite straightforward – working out what to say so that there’s a clear explanation for how you feel and what you need. It could also be about developing perspective so that you know how and when to speak to someone. I always advocate for speaking with partners, family members or friends during ‘peacetime’, when things are calm and quiet – use that time to outline how you feel when they offer solutions instead of reassurance or just listening, and give them guidance of what would help you.

3. The other person (or people) now need to hear you, and understand you. And, at this point, there is not a whole lot we can do if we have already found the words that fit, and spoken to them away from highly emotional situations. This is definitely a point where the communication can go wrong, and it seems mostly out of our control. What we can do is to gently correct them. If they use words that we haven’t used, or label feelings that don’t quite sit with what we are experiencing then it is important to say so. The difficult part is that it is now about thinking on your feet, and avoiding phrases like, “No you got that wrong” or “No, you don’t get it”. This is about a collaboration, not about pointing fingers or widening the gap between the two of you. Work out where the misunderstanding is and help them to make sense of it.

4. We now hope that the other person will respond in a way that helps us to feel understood, important and accepted. There is a great video called “It Is Not About The Nail” that beautifully illustrates that, sometimes, all we need is someone to listen to us and not offer solutions. Being given answers for what we should or could be doing can leave us feeling disempowered. I saw a post from a father a while back (I wish I could link to it) that outlined the three ‘responses’ he offers his daughters: Do you want me to just listen? Do you want me to offer guidance? Do you want me to get involved? It is so simple but would solve many of the issues with communication. We think we know what the other person needs, but sometimes it is perfectly OK to ask them. Similarly, it is perfectly OK to tell someone what you need — “I have an issue that I want to talk to you about. I need you to just listen please”.

It is not an easy task, but if we can spend time practising how to do each of the steps, and involving a partner or family member, we stand a better chance of being understood and getting the response we are hoping for. Being in dialogue with others can be tricky, let alone when emotions are high. Try and find a way to express yourself and get the support that you need.

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The 5 Ps of a Relationship

There is an abundance of relationship advice to be found in books and all over the internet. The truth is that each relationship will have its differences that can’t necessarily be captured in a few lines or chapters. That said, I would like to add some observations of what seems to be consistently brought into the counselling room – five areas that, when worked at, seem to bring the best ‘return on investment’. Although there is no particular order, I find that starting with the first one helps with the others:

  • Pause. We all have a tendency to be reactive. Whether that reaction is to argue, become defensive or retreat into ourselves it is an almost instant reaction that we have unknowingly developed and held onto for years. An often deceivingly difficult task is to pause before we react, to think before we speak, to reflect before we do anything. With enough practice, and the right guidance, we can choose how we would like to respond. A response is far more helpful than a reaction, which tends to be instant and comes from a place of insecurity or defensiveness. Pausing before we give a reply allows us to respond truly to what has been said – to see it for what it really is – rather than how we interpret it.
  • Perspective. Not only are we all different, but those differences are not always acknowledged or appreciated. If we are reacting rather than responding, we will interpret things how we see them rather than for what they are. Acknowledging our differences and our interpretations allows us to be more understanding of the other person’s experience and communication. It is also helpful if we can understand the context in which they are communicating – are they stressed? Did they not have a good night’s sleep? Are they hungry? Do they generally feel unheard by us? Knowing each other’s differences is key, and so is knowing their current state of mind and where they are coming from.
  • Positives. I sometimes hear relationships described in terms of a bank account. That every argument makes a withdrawal from the ‘funds’. The more arguments and fall-outs that occur, the closer you are to zero. Or, in other instances, the further into debt you go. What allows an argument to be just an argument is not only putting it into context (and perhaps being forgiving – we’re both stressed right now…) but to also have a reserve of positive experiences to fall back onto. Or, to use the bank analogy, to be in credit so that when you make a withdrawal you’re not close to, or passed, zero. It seems straightforward in that sense – if we have five or ten positive experiences (however small) for every hurtful or ‘negative’ experience, we’re doing alright.
  • Prevention. The military definition of a preemptive strike does not lend itself well to a relationship but there is much to be said for preemptive conversations as a way of laying the groundwork for future arguments or disagreements. If we can clearly and honestly share what works for us (needing space after an argument or needing to vent to a close friend) it prevents misinterpretations (avoidance, sharing private experiences). If practiced enough times we will be allowed that space to experience what helps us without judgement or feeling that we have to appease. It is then important to acknowledge what works for both parties, and to compromise a sort of ‘game plan’ for repairing and getting back on track.
  • Presence. It is great to see the upward trend of mindfulness and meditation (apps, blogs, entire websites), and I would argue that such practices have a place in most aspects of our well-being. Specifically in a relationship it allows us to draw our attention to the other person, to put aside other stresses (as much as possible) and commit to the moment. Modern life is rife with distractions, and it is so easy to put a box-set on when the day has been stressful and tiring. Sometimes what we need is to switch off and unwind. But try to keep the ratio of quality one-to-one time in your favour, and be present for each other. Listen, take your time, focus on what they are saying. Give the relationship the time it needs during periods of stress or inadvertent distance.

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Forgiveness as a conscious effort

Why is it important to forgive? Should we forgive? Can we forgive but not forget? I often speak with people about the wrongs that have happened in their lives, and more specifically how other people have wronged them, upset them, caused them to feel unwanted or unimportant. There are many things to explore in this sort of dynamic and experience.

For one, it is useful to explore the feelings, of course, as it always is. Another thing is exploring the other person’s perspective – to look at what might have caused them to behave in that way. Shifting the perspective to another’s perspective often gives a sense of compassion and understanding. But still there is sometimes a lingering feeling that does not go away, even once the feelings have been explored and they have put themselves in another’s shoes.

What seems to remain is a conscious effort to forgive. We are not taught how to forgive. We are told, often, that we should forgive. Or, in some instances to forget. But forgiveness is not easy or straightforward. And interestingly, it is not for the other person’s sake that we should forgive. Of course, that’s an honourable thing to do.

But I advocate for forgiveness as a means of self-care, and a way of allowing yourself to move forward into the next chapter. It is through forgiveness that we can allow the chains of the past to fall away, to let the emotions that tie us to the past to dissipate.

It is a lovely thought if we all forgave each other, but it is more important, for our own sake, to forgive those that have hurt us. To hold on to the past, and the experience of trauma or distress, is to prevent a new beginning from happening. There is something so primal about wanting to hold on to the anger, but it is not rational, nor is it helpful. What is better, for all, is the practice of forgiving.

What counselling can offer is a space to process the feelings of hurt, disappointment, rejection, betrayal… to explore reasons that the other person did what they did… and most importantly counselling is a space to practice the sometimes difficult task of forgiving others, of letting go of those feelings that weigh so heavily on our journey.

We need to consciously move in to the next phase, and let go of all the things that keep us living in the past, of re-experiencing the hurt. It is always a good time to learn the art of forgiveness.

Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels