There’s an old clich? about people being divided into two types of listeners: those who listen for comprehension, and those who are only drawing breath waiting for their turn to talk again. It’s a truism in relational therapy that when we’re activated by stressful situations, a lot of us take a naturally defensive posture, in the sense of leaping to the defence of our position. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s no defence like a good offence, as the saying goes. It’s not uncommon that people who feel trapped or attacked come out of their corners verbally swinging: jumping on the conversation and interrupting or speaking breathlessly into the barest of breaks after someone else is done talking, taking the ball back and making things immediately about themselves and their experiences or opinions.
Watching this dynamic unfold in conflicted relational communications is a significant portion of what relationship therapists do. We’re looking for places where the power struggle between the participants starts to escalate, where the knives come out, where the retreats and feints occur. And we’re listening for the Four Horsemen so we can divert the worst of the attacks into antidotes. There are many different ways we therapists cleverly divert the energy of those attacks into something that starts to de-escalate the tension. Sometimes it starts with simply calling out the incongruity of attacking someone we claim to love and choose with commitment; if the stated desire is to build love, trust, commitment, then why choose actions that hurt, divide, alienate? What happens when the participants make an effort to choose a different way of engaging?
Enter the principles of active listening and non-violent communication (NVC), something that ties in hard with the practice of emotionally-focused therapy (EFT).
NVC’s describes its core practice of listening as “receiving empathically”:
“Instead of offering empathy, we tend instead to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position and feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message. We give the others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood. There is a Buddhist saying that aptly describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” ” – Marshall Rosenberg, “Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life,” PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas CA, 2003
Active listening, using verbal and non-verbal common reflection tactics creates empathic presence between the parties. One of the simpler ways to do this in the therapy room is to re-orient the clients towards each other. The more intense the topic and potential for conflict, the more likely it is that clients will speak to each other through the neutral third party of the therapist: looking at or facing toward the therapist, speaking to the therapist rather than directly to the partner. We are a point of de-escalation because we are assumed to be neutrally receptive, sympathetic. But *WE* want clients to be practicing these tactics directly with each other. Sometimes this means we have to teach clients how to slow down their own reactive escalation and actually read each other WITHOUT INTERPRETING, or at least without jumping to assumptive and unvalidated conclusions based on the interpretations we all generally make anyway. We can use some reflection to start, by asking each client, in turn, to tell me how they see their partner’s physical presence and encouraging each to explicitly validate their external perceptions with the partner.
EFT folds this empathetic reception into a different style of exchange between partners, following these steps:
- reflecting back what the speaker has shared, not as a verbatim report but rather more of a “Here’s what I’m hearing”
- validation (sometimes clarified by the therapist until the process clarifies for the clients)
- exploration of the speaker’s experience in the form of a Q&A (“evocative responding”)
- highlighting, or heightening, the interactions that seem more poignant or significant in the partners’ exchange (for example, reflecting through Gottman’s lens the various points of disengagement or repair attempts)
- infering the client’s experience, enabling or assisting the speaker to “extend and clarify that experience so that new meaning can naturally emerge” (Sue Johnson, “The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd ed.” Brunner Routledge, NY 2004)
- therapist self-disclose (if relevant/appropriate)
- restructuring or reframing the clients’ interactions based on developing understanding and compassion
The hard part for many clients in interactive crisis is that yielding the defensive battlements feels untenable. Yielding often leaves someone in crisis feeling lost, overpowered, undermined, unheard, at risk, unsafe. For many, the lashing out or refusal to hear each other’s pain is the result of an unconscious, “you hurt me so I want you to know how it feels, asshole,” knee-jerk reaction. Or there might be a shame reaction to recognizing (and not wanting to face the responsibility for) hurt we have caused, so we double-down on defensive entrenchment and find ways to avoid taking ownership for actions with painful consequences for others. By the time we get into that kind of dynamic, however, these patterns are often so deeply entrenched that restoring good faith between partners is work that has to happen before we can re-orient clients toward each other. We can deploy some short-term, strengths-based work here to re-establish some fundamentals of goodwill between the partners, getting them back into recognizing their good things between them. We need that platform brought back into focus if we’re going to have something stable on which to build a sustainable change process in the midst of ongoing crisis.
Yielding defensive stances requires rebuilding, and sometimes developing for the first time, trust; it also requires the tools to self-regulate emotional upheaval, to clarify what needs to be said and to accurately receive and respond to that information. We take each portion of this process as a one-step-at-a-time process until everyone gets a little more of a solid footing on the change processes. We acknowledge and build on baby-step successes, and we try to not let setbacks make mountains out of molehills; old habits do die hard, after all, and for many, these are habits and internal processes that can be VERY deeply rooted (like, Family of Origin deep in some cases…)
But if the clients are in the room because they both intrinsically WANT to work things out, then we use their willingness to tolerate the uncertainty as a springboard towards hope, we reconnect them with the strengths inherent in themselves and their relationship, then we begin to rebuild their relationship house with different tools. Slow but rewarding processes based in genuine empathy and compassion for each other get us the best long-term results, which graduate our couples back OUT of therapy!