How can couples break away from those familiar conversations that get stuck in point-and-counterpoint, accusation and defense? Conversations where the content is lost to a frustrating, confusing process?
One answer might be found at the movies, in the voice of the narrator: that disembodied voice that speaks from outside the movie or on top of its action, that helps set the historical context, explains a key plot point, or conveys thoughts that would otherwise be only “in the head” of a character.
The voice of the narrator came to mind recently when working with a married couple, Maria and George, who were frustrated by a regularly occurring conversation that would lead to nowhere but misunderstanding, defensiveness and distance. As we looked closely at their conversation, what was both obvious and saddening, was how, in the course of their difficult interaction, they would drift away from their original good intentions. Those good intentions would get lost in the background, implied but never spoken.
This time their difficult conversation began with a concern expressed by Maria, which felt like a criticism to George. He then responded defensively, or self-protectively, or with a counter-criticism (they disagreed on the exact nature of George’s response), and the conversation went back-and-forth, and headed from-bad-to-worse.
I asked Maria what her intentions were when she started the conversation earlier that week. Was she hoping for something in particular? What did she want to accomplish by raising the topic? Why was it important to her? What was her preference for how the conversation would happen?
Maria said her intention was to “connect with George, as a partner,” around an issue that was of concern to her (I’m not naming their particular issue here; feel free to insert one that’s familiar to you). Her hope was that George would be “open” to her concern, that he “could understand” why she was concerned and maybe even appreciate her for raising the matter. When I questioned her further she was able to cite occasions in the past when they were able to interact in this preferred manner, and she was clear that this was a strongly held preference, or preferred story, for their relationship.
Then I asked George about his preference for that same conversation. Similar to Maria he expressed his desire for “non-defensiveness,” “mutual care,” and listening with “openness” to one another, to build more understanding and closeness.
In that moment I was aware of how vastly different were the two conversations they described: the conversation that actually happened earlier that week where they got lost in the content and their reactions to one another – I’m calling it the “lost-in-the-process” conversation; and the second conversation, which didn’t happen that week, except in their descriptions, that was built around their intentions and preferences – I’m calling it the “intention-focused” conversation.
The lost-in-the-process conversation had all three of us feeling sad and overwhelmed by the mess of hurt, fear, accusation and counter-accusation George and Maria described (and that they actually re-lived, to a certain extent, while they were describing it in session).
The second conversation, the intention-focused one, had us feeling more optimistic about Maria and George’s desire for closeness and connection. We were clearer about what they wanted and how they would like to talk with one another; what they wanted felt do-able, and certainly worth doing.
In session I moved to the whiteboard and tried to visually depict the two conversations. For the lost-in-the-process one, I used back-and-forth arrows and words like “fear,” “hurt,” “vulnerability,” and “defensiveness” (words they had used) to depict the pain and stuck-ness they felt. It looked something like this:
Then I depicted their intention-focused conversation and wrote the words they used to describe their intentions and preferences: “clarification,” “talking about things that matter,” “tackling the tough topics,” “being open,” “being respectful,” and becoming “closer” in the process. It looked something like this:
With both drawings on the board, and with all of us feeling the different effects of these two depictions, I asked George and Maria to indicate their preferences. They both opted for the intention-focused version. Among the reasons they cited for their preferences were that they thought this kind of talking “brought out the best” in both of them, and rekindled “hope” and “love” that was often hidden by frustration. They also said that this kind of conversation didn’t let fear and vulnerability rule the day.
Later in the session, I wondered with them about what it would be like to step out of the lost-in-the-process conversation and into the intention-focused conversation. That is, if they found themselves in the midst of a lost-in-the-process conversation, headed in an unproductive direction, would it be desirable to step out of that conversation and into the other one? Or, might it be worthwhile to just begin some conversations by focusing on intentions and preferences, as an introduction to raising any concerns?
In other words, would it be valuable for Maria and George not to leave all of their hopes, desires and good intentions in the background, but to bring them up-front in their conversation? Would it be valuable to name those intentions – to “own” them, so to speak – and allow those intentions, like the narrator in a movie, to provide the context in which the desired conversation could take place?
From a narrative perspective
Michael White’s work on “landscape of action” and “landscape of identity” has been helpful to me in understanding how the “story” of an experience, how we understand or make sense of it, is derived both from our actions (what we do and say), and from the meanings, values, hopes, commitments, and intentions (“landscape of identity”) we ascribe to the situation.
For example, when Maria first raised her concern George not only heard the words Maria spoke and saw her gestures, movements, etc., but he also attributed or viewed them through the lens of certain meanings, like: “she’s unwilling to accept that my ways are just as legitimate as hers”; “she doesn’t like it that I’m so happy”; “she’s still afraid of me.” Likewise, George’s responses were also viewed and interpreted by Maria using these dual landscapes (“his words and tone are ‘defensive’; he knows I’m right but he’s too proud to admit it”).
From a narrative perspective we see these dual landscapes informing all interactions, and we assume that there are always multiple possibilities for how we understand a situation (we believe that multiple stories are always present). There are lots of interesting applications of these narrative ideas and assumptions to the situation with Maria and George. I’ll highlight just two or three of them here.
One application is that these ideas help us see that it is possible for George and Maria to explicitly influence the meaning they’re making of a given interaction rather than “leaving it to chance.” By stating, up front, that her intention is to “tackle an important issue,” or “make a tough decision” and to “work together” while doing so, Maria is helping to shape the unfolding story. She’s offering a lens or perspective to George to help him interpret what she’s up to. By doing so she’s increasing the likelihood that George hears her concern as an effort to work something out and get to a better place, rather than as criticism. (And, yes, it is possible that George won’t believe Maria when she says that her intention in bringing up a concern is to “work together” or “get closer.” And it’s likely that Maria has multiple intentions and may be choosing to highlight just one of them. There may be much to discuss even in the simple statement that “I want to be close to you.” Did I mention that relationships can be pretty complex?)
Another potential benefit of George (or Maria) naming his intentions at the beginning of the conversation (or during it, perhaps), is that he puts himself in the position of considering what actions and attitudes would be most consistent with his intentions: “If I really want to accomplish this, how should I behave? What words and tone-of-voice would best match my intentions?”
One thing I really like about Maria or George making a clear statement of their intentions is that it lets the other person make a more-informed decision about whether they want or feel able to participate in such a conversation. If Maria wants to “talk about a tough subject” in order to “be clearer” and “possibly get closer,” is George interested in or able to talk about that subject? Is he able to do it now or would it be better in an hour? Does he want to get clearer? Does he want to get closer? And is he willing to extend himself toward that end? In other words, Maria is naming her preferred story for the conversation, and now George can make a more-informed decision about whether he wants to help create or build that story with Maria. Of course, George may not want to or feel capable of doing so at that time, but maybe that’s better to know at the beginning rather than finding out at the end.
Finally, I’m aware that this discussion about naming one’s intentions can seem like an overly cautious, scripted, or regulated way of being in a relationship – not “free” or “natural” or “in the moment.” I think spontaneity or “free-flowing” or “open and honest sharing” can be beautiful and delightful, and when a relationship is working well, such conversations may predominate. The fact that they are possible and that they do work well may also indicate that those in such a conversation already have a good understanding of one another’s intentions, and that their conversations are consistent with and supportive of those intentions. But I think we also need options for when difficulties arise, or for when we want to give ourselves the best chance to have a good, productive conversation about something difficult. To return to the voice of the narrator: Sometimes the movie’s action and dialogue carry the story, and sometimes the narrator is needed to set the stage or fill in the gaps.
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