You’re unhappy with the way things are going in your relationship. You want to talk it out with your partner and resolve the issue. The conversation turns sour every time you approach it. You feel even unhappier or get angry and blame him, which means that he gets even more defensive or turns a deaf ear.
Sounds familiar? Studies show that this pattern is common in close relationships of opposite sexes. And the reason is that men are uncomfortable with seeing their partner unhappy. This is because of ages old programming of being the main provider that makes them feel inadequate when their partners ask them to do things differently.
However, this doesn’t mean the relationship needs to stay stuck in a pattern that is not working. We can break past the impasse by changing not what we say, but how we say it. After all, conversations are largely non-verbal, and yet we often get caught up in appealing to logic and reason. Instead, if we were to focus on calming the primary fear response, we would get much farther ahead.
The best way of doing so is through the body. Our vagal nerve that meanders through the body, connecting gut, heart and brain is also connected to our facial muscles. This means that a tender smile, a listening ear, a soft voice can all work wonders first on our own physiology, and then on that of our partner.
The reality is that we’re wired to read the bodily cues of others in order to make sense of our inner worlds and our surroundings. Unlike most other animals, we have whites in our eyes that help the other person understand our intentions and our expectations. When we don’t make eye contact, or look away, we make the other person insecure, and they react with the fear response. Which is how most difficult conversations end up.
In order to have an open and honest conversation, we need to show openness through our body. And here are a few ways of doing so:
Turn toward your partner
Although this sounds pretty obvious, you’d be surprised how often we don’t do so when angry. We either mumble while walking away, or speak under our breath hoping they’ll get it. Or we look them squarely in the face with our hands on or hips, which is hardly the most friendly stance.
Lean forward if possible
This doesn’t mean bending over for sure! It means just that slight tilt which relaxes your body, versus the stiffness of anger and aggression. This also attunes you to the other person, and makes it easier to understand their position during the conversation.
Hold out your hand when appropriate
This may not be the first thing you can do when either of you is upset. But be open to reaching out not just as a reconciliatory gesture, but because touch calms us down and connects us to others.
Pay attention to your tone
You can experiment with this one this very moment by putting your hand on your chest, and then speaking harshly with yourself first, and then softly. What changes do you notice in your heartbeat? Yes, a soft voice calms you down, as much as it calms down the other.
Smile and keep it light
Again, the smile is a signal of safety. And humor is great, not only because it keeps things from flaring up, but also because it reminds us that in the vast flow of life, few things are so important that they’re worth getting all upset over.
Now armed with these strategies, go ahead and have your next difficult conversation.
And then come back and let us know how it went! What challenges did you face? What surprises did you find?