I am often sitting across from clients who express, through tears, the difficulties they experience in communicating their felt needs with their partner. These are needs that reside deep within. Needs that each of us long to share with those close to us, particularly our person. But when we are currently existing in a state of conflict, surviving day-to-day, it is nearly impossible to have vulnerable, heartfelt conversations.
Curiosity over Correction
Every conflict is an opportunity for connection. We must become skilled at navigating these waters, for they bring many treasures to those willing to prioritize their partner in the moment of expressed need. Adopting a posture of curiosity rather than correction will help you immensely. When you see anger or frustration (typically secondary emotions) in your partner, be curious about what other feelings (the primary emotions) might be at play and lean into and explore these. It is a pathway to connection.
When in a conversation where emotions are, or could be, present under the surface, always remember Correction leads to Conflict while Curiosity leads to Connection almost every time. It is often best to listen fully to your partner, not to respond with correction but with curiosity, to fully understand and feel where they are coming from in the moment. You will have an opportunity later to discuss your thoughts and feelings, however, at times we must prioritize the other. This does not negate or invalidate our own understanding and felt experience. Our experience is important to be understood as well, at an appropriate time.
Setting Up Conversations
Finding the right time and right way to communicate can be difficult when tensions are already high. Often one partner is avoiding having these conversations while the other is chasing after them wondering when they will occur and to what level. This alone can increase and intensify tensions and conflict if left unattended. In times like these, I like to break down the types of conversations that may be useful and those that may be harmful.
There are 3 frameworks we can look at to help provide us context and direction, rules for how to communicate, or not. These do a great job of helping set expectations and alleviate many issues that can get in the way of desired connection through communication.
The Toolbox, Comforter, & Bucket
It helps to have a shared language around concepts that couples can use together to provide direction to one another. Language that is specific and simple enough to eliminate opportunities for confusion of what is needed in a given moment. To simplify our conversations functionally we will look at them as having three purposes. One is to fix and solve, one is to comfort and encourage, one is to hear and understand. The Toolbox, Comforter, and Bucket.
The Toolbox – How Can I Fix It
Often clients share their attempts at resolving conflict and seeking understanding and connection. Most conversations take the form of the Toolbox. These are attempts to fix the problem, to find solutions, to correct understanding. Often in these situations we get stuck in trying to rewrite the other’s version of what happened or what was said.
Typically, our perspectives are different, we have conflicting felt experiences and emotions as a result. In our attempts to help our partner feel better we attempt to explain what really happened. This, more times than not, leads our partner to feeling, dismissed, disregarded, unheard, unseen, and misunderstood. We wind up in conflict over “facts” of the event rather than connecting in the emotions of the event.
There is a time and place for Toolbox conversations, but only after we are certain our partner has felt seen, heard, and understood.
The Comforter – I Am With You
The Comforter conversation is exactly what it sounds like. These are like a warm blanket engulfing you and providing a feeling of protection. Common expressions given in these types of conversations are those that express a “withness” about them.
For instance, your partner is talking about new polices at work that are troublesome. Instead of pointing out possible reasons these are good and providing clarity or a different perspective to “fix” and take away the difficult emotions of our partner, we can be with them in it.
We do this by saying things like, “Yeah, that sounds terrible, I would be upset too.” Or “I am so sorry; this sounds like it will be a difficult transition for you.” This conversation aligns with the other, to sit with them in their emotional experience without attempting to take it away or lessen it. We are present with them allowing them to process and know what they are feeling is ok in the moment, they are safe to express themselves with us without judgement or correction.
Often, simply having this space will allow our partner to work though their experience and come out the other side with clarity and feeling more connected and understood by us.
This can be a powerful experience which provides a firm foundation and strength for next step decisions that can be made with confidence rather than insecurities. We know we are not alone. Even when things seem their darkest.
The Bucket – Tell Me More
In most situations I find the Bucket as the most appropriate place to begin and a powerful conversation framework. Instead of bringing tools and strategies to the conversation or a warm arm wrapping with you stance, we simply bring a bucket for a verbal vomit session.
We hold the metaphorical bucket and allow our partner to expel their thoughts and feelings while we listen. We do this with a posture of curiosity not correction in mind. We are listening to understand and connect, not to respond and correct. If we say anything, we want to limit it to things like “Tell me more” and “What do you need.”
Being the Bucket holder has its challenges. As in all communication, we must be aware of our body language and how this is communicating and may be sending messages that invite more openness or shut it down.
The safer our partner feels the more they will reveal. This creates more opportunity for things to become more triggering for us personally. Much like our physical reaction to the smell of vomit can be a gag reflex resulting in our own mess, so can words shared by our partner. They may communicate something difficult to stomach and it elicits an involuntary reaction. Before you know it both parties are sick, and you are left with yet another mess to clean up. We must be on guard against this reaction and remain fully present for our partner in these discussions.
By presenting ourselves as a Bucket, we provide a safe environment for our partner to share things they may otherwise not be ready to discuss.
At times, simply getting things on the table allows both partners to begin considering what is happening in the relationship. It forces the Bucket holder to be in a position of curiosity and allows time after the conversation for deeper contemplation and consideration of the other’s felt and lived experience. They can then return to their partner soft, nondefensively, and with understanding, and empathy to seek solutions together.
A Path Out of Conflict and Into Connection
In my time with clients, I have been told these three simple frameworks allow them to set expectations before, and navigate within conversations, that would have typically been explosive had they not had these.
Knowing what your partner needs going into a conversation can remove a lot of anxiety and pressure to show up in the right way. If your partner fails to tell you what they need you can also ask. “Hey, just so I know, do you need me to help you solve this (Toolbox), or do you just need me to listen (Bucket), or maybe you need some encouragement you’re not alone/crazy (Comforter).”
By setting our partners up for success we set ourselves up for success. It is important we ask for what we need in our relationships and do not expect our partners to guess right every time.