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Effective Communication

The last three essays have been a summary of the information about attachment models in adult relationships from the book Attached. In this essay I’ll continue to explore this dynamic.

To summarise the three types of attachment:

1. Anxious people are often preoccupied with thier relationships and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back.
2. Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and commonly try to minimise closeness.
3. Secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving.

Effective Communication

A few weeks ago I was with a friend having dinner. We were talking about relationships and the dynamics of attachment. My friend made a comment about how he would seek to talk with someone if something seemed amiss in the communication or their behaviour. It seemed quite clear to him that the way to deal with a conflict was to talk and arrive at an understanding of what was going on rather than withdraw  and blame the other or take the blame and fear being abandoned. Not surpassingly, when he took the test latter he came out as securely attached!

What about those of us who do not have as a first recourse the belief that we deserve to be heard, that our needs matter or that conversation will clarify the position? What if we either go in to protest behaviour of being silent, ignoring our partner due to a perceived slight or withdrawing from what we see as their demanding and needy attempts to talk to us? The hardest dynamic of any relationship is the avoidant/anxious, as they will cause each other to go into their coping mechanism: the distance of the avoidant partner will cause the anxious partner to become more eager to get reassurance that they matter – texts, calls, attempts to meet or talk. In contrast the avoidant partner will want space and solitude, and will withdraw from their anxious partners attempts to create intimacy.

The final chapter of the book Attached is devoted to Effective Communication. This is a summary of what is discussed there.

What is effective communication? It is a way of speaking that communicates our needs, rather than leaving our partner to guess what is bothering us. It is an important tool in dating as it will help us to choose a compatible partner. An anxious person will often feel they need to be other than how they are. Relationship advice may tell an anxious person “play it cool, don’t be needy, appear confident and strong to attract a mate”. Whilst it may be true that a self confident secure type who does not need another’s reassurance in order to feel valid is an attractive quality in a partner, if it is not who we are then we will risk attracting someone who is not then able to hold us when we finally reveal our true vulnerability and need.

In contrast, if we are ready to show our vulnerability when we date and name our needs those who withdraw from this would never have been able to give us the support we need, and thus leaves us free to focus our dating attention on those who can. The same applies in friendships.

An example given in the book is of turning a perceived weakness into a strength. If you know you need to be reassured a lot that your partner loves you and is attracted to you, instead of trying to conceal this out of a fear of appearing needy you state it as a given. This will paradoxically make you appear self-confident and assertive, rather than relying on covert means of trying to get this reassurance without being direct about your need for it – sending texts asking how your partner is when really you just want them to reply and ask how things are with you. In using effective communication from the start you also set the tone for the relationship as one where you can both be honest and share responsibility to look out for each other’s well being.

The difficulty of expressing one’s needs as an anxious person is that we often don’t know what they are! Instead we tend to get overwhelmed by emotion and lash out. Ask my ex, I had very un-Buddhist moments with him! Followed by shame for having got angry. In contrast people with a secure attachment style don’t react so strongly, don’t get overwhelmed as easily, and can thus calmly and effectively communicate their own feelings and needs. Secure people also believe they are worthy of love and affection and expect thier partner to be responsive and caring. With these self beliefs they find it easier not to let negative thoughts take over.

What to do then if you are anxious?

Unlike a secure person you’ll be easily flooded by emotions, will fear that the relationship is fragile and easily broken and don’t expect your partner to to respond positively. Fearing the fragility of the relationship you’ll find it harder to express your needs effectively. When you do try to talk, if you have an avoidant partner, rather than giving you the reassurance you seek they may well withdraw. This is  one reason why effective communication in dating is important. As an anxious attachment person one will quickly decide that the person we have met is the one we have to have. It will feel that we stand no chance with anyone else and we will do all we can to make it work with this person, even ignoring the red flags that might make another question a person’s suitability. When we do communicate our needs, if it results in the person backing of or loosing interest it will be easy to feel that we have ruined things, “if only I had played it more cool, I’ve lost the only one who could have made me happy”. In truth it has just saved us from a relationship in which we would have always been trying to be right for our partner, or fearing their loss of love.

The author suggests the following for anxious and avoidant types:

Anxious: turn to effective communication when you  feel you are starting to resort to protest behaviour (needing to text, going silent on your partner in the hope of drawing them in, not answering calls, threatening to leave etc – these were covered in last weeks email). Instead of this, feel into what your needs are right now that are not being met. Once you have calmed down, find a way to effective communicate your needs to your partner.

Avoidant: whenever you feel the need to run this is a sure sign you need to use effective comunication. Explain to your partner that you need some space and that you would like to find a way of doing so that is acceptable to them. Suggest a few alternatives, making sure the other person’s needs are taken care of.

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The Five Principles of Effective Communication

1. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Be genuine and honest about your feelings.

2. Focus on your needs. This includes your need to take your partner’s well being into account as well – comunicating in a way that hurts them will hurt you. When expressing your needs, it’s helpful to use verbs such as need, feel and want, rather than talking about your partners short comings.

Another book called Non-Violent Communication explores this in much more detail. The author, Marshal Rosenberg, describes a model of  communication based on expressing objective facts, feelings, needs and a request:

“When I sent you a text yesterday morning and you did not reply until today at lunch time I felt upset, because I need to be confident that you can make time for me. In future I would really like it if you reply when you see my message, even if its a few words to say you will reply fully later if you do not have time to text right then, would you be willing to do that?”

This is very different to saying something which blames the other or makes them wrong. Rosenberg’s central premise is that when others hear a feeling and a need they will hear what you are asking for. I used this when I was mugged 10 years ago. Luckily I remembered it all in the moment after a single punch to my face had sent me to the ground. As the man straddled me with his fist in the air time slowed down. I knew he was going to hit me more – he was so pumped with adrenalin his aim was to immobilise me without any concern for how much I might get hurt. I didn’t have time to formulate a perfect feeling/needs want statement! Bur I remember as I looked him in the eyes I said “I’m feeling scared, please don’t hurt me”. I think I forgot to express a clear need “I want to feel safe” but it worked nonetheless. In a moment his fist went down and it was the strangest experience: he spoke to me as if he were talking to a frightened child. His voice was almost reassuring as he said “It’s ok, I won’t hurt you, all I want  is your money”. He then went though my pockets and took all he could and left me laying on the pavement. I had lost a wallet and mobile phone, but I do believe it could have been worse if I had not internalised the importance of using effective communication, so that it came naturally in the moment of extreme need.

3. Be specific. This relates to Rosenberg’s encouragement to state an objective fact rather than emotive statements. Rather than “You are so inconsiderate for keeping me waiting for half an hour” which may just trigger the other person to defend themselves, rather than feel the upset you feel. Rosenberg  suggests instead we express this in a factual way: “When we arranged to meet at 1pm and you arrived at 1.30pm I felt really annoyed as I need to know I can trust people to value my time. In future please arrive at the time we agree or text me so I know you are late and I can decide what to do” You may find other ways to do this, but the principle is to keep to simple facts rather than language that suggests blame.

4. Don’t blame. Never make your partner feel selfish, incompetent, or inadequate. Effective comunication is not about finding a way to communicate your partner’s short comings or making accusations. Make sure you feel calm before trying to discuss something that has upset you.

5. Be assertive and non apologetic. As the author of Attached says: “your relationship ends are valid – period”. People with different attachment styles may not see your needs as legitimate, but they are essential for your happiness and expressing them authentically is crucial to effective communication. The author makes the point that this is especially important for people with an anxious attachment style as our culture encourages us to believe that many of these needs are illegitimate. Instead if a person feels the importance of close contact, emotional availability, loving reassurance when feeling anxious about not being wanted or valued – then these are authentic needs. Better to be honest about this and have the 99 people withdraw who cannot meet them and meet the 1 person who can, than hide them and settle with one of the 99 and have an ongoing struggle to have them meet your needs as you start to reveal them once the dating phase is over.

(The above is a summary of p.235-241 Attached)

I know from experience that knowing all of this does not make it easy to apply it! But as we practice mindfulness and being more open to our emotions and non judgemental about our thoughts and feelings it does become possible to tune in to what is going on for us and to start to take the risk to express this with honesty. The Loving Kindness practice helps us to cultivate a feeling in our heart that “I’m ok and you’re ok” so we no longer come from a place of judging ourself or the other, or of feeling we need to fix our self or the other. Instead we enter into an honest connection with how we are and how the other is. This may mean recognising that how the other is is incompatible with what we need, and rather than making it our mission to mould them into our perfect partner we leave them to find someone who loves them as they are, as we stay open to finding someone who will love us as we are.

For a detailed test taking about 15 minutes click here. To buy the book click here

Saying No to be able to mean your Yes

As we approach Queer Spirit Festival 2017 I am reminded of the year that has passed since the last event in 2016. One of my most powerful lessons there was to discover that it was ok to say no to certain things during various workshops. There were a few occasions when I had a choice to stay and endure something or say no. On one occasion I was in a pair to work with someone with whom I did not feel comfortable working. On another I was in a workshop when someone I knew came in and I no longer felt comfortable being in the space sharing personal information, so I said to the facilitator that I was leaving to go to the dance tent instead. I then had the most amazing dance and was so glad that I had left. This marked a real shift, as in the past I would have worried that leaving would impact on the facilitator and would have stayed in order not to cause any upset or bad feeling on their part – ignoring how I felt.

Over the last year I have had a number of occasions to recognise the power of a no. I remember all to well the impact of not saying my no and instead giving a dishonest yes. When I was 20 I visited Italy and spent seven weeks traveling from North to South. Whilst in Rome I found a gay night club – pre internet I really can’t remember how I even found the information to locate it, but I did and wandered in at the end of a day of sight seeing. A man whom I did not in any way find attractive started talking to me as soon as I arrived and sat me down at a table after buying me a drink. I spent the whole evening with him wanting to leave but fearing hurting his feelings. I imagined how I would feel to have someone say no to me and how upset I would be and I felt I could not impose this on him so preferred to endure the discomfort myself.

At the end of the evening he asked me to go home with him. Following the same train of thought I said yes, when inside I was screaming no. And so I found myself in the middle of Rome with a man who was obese and I did not find attractive in any way, in his bed, hoping he would just want to fall asleep. He did not. The next day I went back to my hotel and saw a scab on my chin – his bristles had been so rough that  they had cut my chin as we kissed and for the next two weeks I had a thick scab. I remembered that I did not like the feeling of him kissing me, but I was not able to stop it or pull away. Again, it was easier to say yes than assert a no. So that was the end of any adventures on the gay scene in Rome!

At University a year after the experience in Rome I met a man I found incredibly handsome. I was involved with an older man at the time whom I did not find attractive (notice a theme here) but had not been able to say no to when he made his advances. This older man lived back in Cambridge where we had met and I was now in Hull but I felt that we were still boyfriends and that I was not free to meet anyone else. The man I met at University was someone I would have dreamt of getting to know and dating – and he actually pursued me. But in a spirit of misguided integrity I said no to him as I was already involved with someone else.

It was a few months  latter that I  finally reject the older man by becoming celibate as a way to bring the sex part of the relationship to an end. Again I was not able to say a clear no….I preferred to stop having sex altogether as a way out of the relationship than say I wanted to stop being with him. In the same way I had left the University I went to in London the year before in part to get away from an older man who had become keen on me when I went to Act Up: it felt easier to drop out and find another University than say no to his attention or hold my boundaries with him.

It’s OK to say no!

Now as I approach 47 I have finally found that it is alright to say no, and to say yes to what I want. The world does not fall apart when I say no. People do not die, or hate me….and if they do, that is their business to process if my reason for saying no was authentic rather than intended to hurt.

I was on a massage and intimate touch workshop a few weeks ago and was partnered with a man who reminded me of a man who keeps occurring in my dreams and who scares me. The thought of working with this man in real life who held such a strong reminder of a dream image was just too much. But I had to take a breath for a moment to step into that place of saying “I can’t work with you in this exchange”. I felt terrified – of hurting his feelings, of not being good, of seeming selfish or mean. But once said he took it well and we went to the organiser who then reallocated us to different partners, and we then had a good session with our new partners in the exercise.

The same happened at Queer Spirit last year, where there was a woman I could not work with in one workshop. By saying no she then got a partner who could enter into the exercise fully, whereas if I had given an inauthentic yes we would both have had a frustrating experience as I would have held back and resented being there and she would have felt this reticence.

In this way, saying no may be the most generous and kind thing to do if it opens the space up for a more authentic connection to occur.

 

Having stepped into saying no, I am starting to discover my yes in a more assertive way. Last Friday I was feeling a bit down and sad and alone. I was walking to my local shop which is near a friend who lives nearby and I was thinking how I would like to see him. Rather then sending a text, as I might often do in the past, asking how he is in the hope he may reply and suggest we meet, I simply said I was feeling sad and wanted a hug….was he free?

This was a new approach, as in the past I would feel I was imposing by making a request, I should wait for it to be offered – but then my communication would have an edge of being manipulative as I would seem to be enquiring about the other person when really wanting some attention for myself. This way of directly asking felt cleaner and more direct, and I trusted that he could say yes or no according to how he was – I did not have to try and shield him from my need, fearing it was too much to ask. He replied immediately saying “come over”. We had a great evening chatting, and the hug was very welcome, and I left feeling nourished.

This connects with the theme from last week’s email of seeing the house builder: the story teller in my mind says I will overwhelm people with my needs and that I should be self-sufficient and not make any demands. The subtle and covert ways by which the story teller then goes about trying to get his needs met then can have the unintended consequence of making people feel uncomfortable as silent and unspoken contracts are made that if I care for you you will care for me. Rather than feeling that they are receiving unconditional care people may feel a dissonance as this care seems to be based on setting up a contract that implies a return of something unspecified. Certainly my story teller has had a habit of regurgitating the thought “how can they not be there for me after all I have done……” and it is a painful house to live in that is built by that story. I’m pleased that I am starting to see that house builder and no longer letting him construct that edifice of self-identity so much.

If you are someone who has always been able to hold your boundaries and say yes or no when you need to this may all sound strange and unfamiliar. But you will very likely know people who give you signals you find confusing. If you can say no when you need to you may find it confusing when a friend says yes and then seems to resent the thing they have consented to! I hope this reflection helps put you in touch with the sense confusion and the desire to be good and please the other person that is behind this complex and confused communication.

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