Episode 162: How to Have Intimate Conversations

Filling their home

In this final episode of our series about effective communication, Jackie talks about skills we can learn and develop to have meaningful conversations in our romantic relationships.  These skills can become a habit and help us build the connection and meaning we long for in our primary relationship.

TRANSCRIPT: How to Have Intimate Conversations

Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode is our final episode in the series that I’ve been doing on effective communication, and I’ve been pulling a lot from Drs. John & Julie Gottman in covering effective communication and skills and tricks that we can learn to increase and improve the communication in our primary relationships. Now one of the things that we’ve talked about is often the first step to either building, or if you’ve been in a relationship for a while, rebuilding this bond is intentionally communicating non-defensively and openly. By doing this, couples often come to understand the reasons that are behind each other’s choices and behavior patterns. They can express their frustrations in a gentler, more constructive way that the other person is more able to hear and receive and become aware, maybe for the first time, of the effects that they have on each other on a daily, ongoing basis.


So one of the good questions to ask is why can’t we just do this? Why isn’t this something we just naturally do? Well, it turns out that the ability to have these kinds of conversations is not one that we’re born with, and it’s not always easy to learn. The other thing that kind of works against us in learning these skills is that it usually is not modeled for us. The generations before us, we didn’t typically watch our parents communicate in this way. They didn’t watch their parents communicate in this way, and it goes back and back, and generations upon generations really have not been doing this, and so often for young kids, they model and then do what is modeled for them, and so it hasn’t been something that we naturally learned or that we naturally would learn.

Now there’s also a lot of ways that our brain works and how our psyche is made up that can be a barrier to learning how to communicate in non-defensive and open ways. Some of this may be the way that we respond to or our discomfort with cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias is also something that can get in the way of this. Also with this ability to… or not ability, but this desire to be understood, and oftentimes that’s associated with being right, can get in the way of having effective communication skills. However, just like learning to ride a bike, the practice of intimate communication, once we’ve learned it, it’s difficult to un-learn it. If you think about wherever you are, whatever age you are currently in your life, if you were to say I want to un-learn how to ride a bike, however rocky that process was for you and how much time it took for you to actually get the hang of riding a bike, once you got that, it became something that we talk about. It moved from a conscious competency into an unconscious competency. Our body kind of retains these memories, and we no longer have to really think about balance or how to start and stop. We just can get on a bike and we can do it, even if we haven’t done it for a long time. You could go a decade without riding a bike and it’s not like it was the first time you started to learn to ride a bike, so non-defensive communication and open communication, once we master these skills, once we figure it out and it kind of clicks for us, it’s really difficult to un-learn, and it’s difficult to go back to a way of communicating that’s not from this perspective, so if we make it a habit, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by how natural healthy strategies begin to feel and how much they become a new default.

Now like I said, I’ve been sharing a lot of Gottman’s skills of the trade throughout this series, and here’s another one for you to learn. So Dr. Gottman talks about three skills and one rule for having an intimate conversation. The rule is understanding must precede advice. So the Gottmans tell couples that they work with that the goal of an intimate conversation is only to understand, not to problem solve, not to give advice, and they say this because in their research, they’ve learned that premature problem solving tends to shut people down, and problem solving and advice should only begin when both people feel totally understood, and so that’s the rule. Understanding must precede advice.

Now one of the first skills that they teach going with this is to put your feelings into words. So the first skill is being able to put our feelings into words, which for some of us, we did not grow up learning how to do that, and maybe our emotion vocabulary is quite limited. So we start to learn what the emotions are, we start to put those emotional words to what we’re feeling. Sometimes this can be a process in which we’re kind of investigating what that is and what other people do and what does this mean? I always tell couples if we’re working on this, print out one of those feelings faces or there are things that you can find on the internet when you start to Google feeling faces. That’s like the face and it will have a face that kind of tries to mimic… they’re more cartoonish kind of faces, but they’re trying to mimic maybe what the feeling is, and start to expand your vocabulary of emotions so that when you’re trying to communicate, you have that foundation of putting your feelings into words and you have those words. You’ve expanded your vocabulary. Eugene Gendlin, who is a master clinician at the Gottman Institute says that when we’re able to find the right images, phrases, metaphors, and words to fit our feelings, there’s this kind of resolution that we feel in our body, and it eases the tension when we find the right words, so that’s important to be able to put our feelings into words. It also helps to clarify or to give a picture to the person that we’re communicating with, and in intimate conversations, focusing makes our conversations about feelings much deeper and more intimate because the words reveal who we are, or the imagery reveals who we are.

Now skill number two is asking open-ended questions. Another way to say this is we ask questions that open the heart. So if we’re the listener, we’re trying to help our partner explore his or her feelings by asking open-ended questions. This is done by either asking targeted questions like “What’s the worst-case scenario here for you?” Or we might make specific statements that kind of help explore feelings, like “Tell me the story about that.” Other examples of this, an open-ended question that might open the heart might be something like, “What really touched you about this?” or “What really changed for you about this?” “What feelings are you afraid of or resistant to feeling about this situation?” Maybe another one might be, “How do you think all of this fits into your life as a whole?” We’re going on a deeper level to really help our partner explore what’s going on for them, and they will reveal themselves to us as we ask these questions and kind of guide the conversation in a way that we’re just exploring. You might have an idea if you know your partner well and you know their backstory well, you might have an idea to some of these answers, and you also might be surprised, so don’t get stuck to too many answers or think like I’m trying to guide you to the answer that I think is correct and really just explore this process and let it go wherever it goes and just understand what’s happening for your partner. Exploratory statements might be something like “Tell me what you need right now” or “We have lots of time to talk, so just take your time. Don’t feel pressured.” It might be something that is validating to them, like “I think you’re being very clear. I understand this.” or “Go on.” It may also be a statement about “Tell me what you think possible solutions are. I think I’m hearing them, but tell me what you think those are.” So that’s part of how we… I will often say to couples often in communication we’re kind of communicating up at the surface level, and usually if I’m working with a couple, I can feel when something shifts. Somebody responds to it. It’s usually not verbally. It’s usually pretty subtle in their body, and if you’re tuned into it or do this work like every day, every week like I do, I get pretty tuned into it, and I can feel it when one of them responds. When that happens, you may be talking about carpool, which seems like it could be pretty black-and-white, pretty clear-cut, but even something seemingly benign like that can bring up something, and if you’re not watching for that, you’re going to keep communicating about carpool, and you’re going to keep like information giving on the surface when actually when that shift happened, we needed to drop down and say “What happened?” I do that often with couples, and I’ll just say, “What happened right there?” And I don’t know what that is. I just felt it. Or I may teach them to say, “Hey I felt something shift right there. Did something shift?” Explore that. Oftentimes we don’t trust our own skills in doing this, so even if we do feel it, we just keep on going and we hope it doesn’t cause a problem, and oftentimes when we do that, we kind of train ourselves to not pay attention to those things, and oftentimes that’s because we’re so uncomfortable and maybe we don’t trust our skills.

Now skill number three is express empathy. So this skill of empathy or validation I think right now in the current climate in the current culture that we live, empathy is getting… it’s very trendy to talk about empathy, but we don’t do it very well. We’re pretty divided. Things are pretty… they’re high-conflict, high-tension, and so we see a lack of empathy, and I will say empathy is not easy. In an intimate conversation, the first two skills, putting your feelings into works and asking open-ended questions, help us sense and explore another person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Now empathy is shown by communicating that these thoughts, feelings, and needs make sense to you or that you have this emotional understanding to the words that they’re speaking, and so you’re understanding their experience. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with the person, so you might have an entirely different memory or a different interpretation of events, but empathy means that I communicate given who my partner is and how their story has gone in their life or how they tend to perceive things, so given my partner’s perceptions, these thoughts, feelings, and needs are valid and make sense to him or her. I might have my own perceptions, and both of our perceptions are valid. We’re not looking for right or wrong, which again is a common mistake in communication is we’re trying to reach an agreement or we’re trying to reach consensus, and the consensus always has to be there are going to be two perceptions and both are valid.

Now if you’ve been in a relationship for years, sometimes we get stuck in a rut or the conversations that we have, the interactions that we have have just kind of become routine or we’re making a lot of assumptions, so we don’t even have a conversation about that, or we just kind of know how to live around each other, but we’re not necessarily living with each other. So there’s a recent book out that’s called “Eight Dates” and then the subtitle is “Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” and the authors are Doug Abrams and Rachel Carlton Abrams, and they talk about how to reinvigorate the connection and passion that first brought you together in a coupleship, but sometimes these things have just become routine or like non-starters in a conversation. So they state that often we think that a happy relationship is the result of having a lot of things in common. Now I would interject here and say that’s pretty narcissistic to think that the reason we get along so well is because you remind me so much of me, and actually the research shows that that’s not what brings about a happy relationship. The research shows that happy relationships and satisfying relationships come from knowing how to address our core differences in a way that supports each other’s needs and dreams. I often will say if there is not some diversity in the relationship, one person is not necessary, or we don’t have a two-person relationship. We have a one-person relationship, and that’s not healthy. So for 40 years, Doug Abrams and Rachel Carlton Abrams have studied what separates the masters of relationship from the disasters, and here’s what they say are the eight conversation-based dates for a lifetime of love.

So the first conversation is around trust and commitment. If you’ve listened to other episodes in this series, we went into depth about trust and commitment, so again, trust is cherishing each other and showing your partner that you can be counted on, and commitment means that we accept our partner exactly as he or she is despite flaws because everybody’s going to have those, so again, trust is kind of cherishing each other and showing your partner that you can be counted on. They can trust you. And then commitment means I’m here, and through good, through bad, I’m here. Now sometimes I will say to couples oftentimes when we make those wedding vows, they sound lovely. I’ve been to weddings where the people writing their own vows are actually very poetic, and they’re beautiful, but what we don’t say is 15 years into this marriage, I’m going to completely change, and I won’t even know who I am, and that’s going to really impact you, and you won’t know who I am, and that’s going to scare you and that’s going to make you wonder if you can actually be with me, and I won’t actually have answers for that because I haven’t figured out who I am, and I want you to stay with me, and I want you to help me explore who that is, even though it’s really scary for you. I’ve never heard that in a wedding vow that says like “Hey, at some point, I’m going to contract a terminal illness, and I’m going to abandon you, and I’m going to make you feel things that you never wanted to feel in this relationship”, but oftentimes those are represented in the vows that we are exchanging, and choosing commitment means that I accept my partner exactly as he or she is at that moment. That’s going to change. They’re not going to be the person that I married, and that’s good news. It may be hard news, but it’s good news. I don’t want… I got married when I was 24. I don’t want to stay the same person I was at 24. Thank goodness I’m a different person than I was at 24. I think that’s in some lovely ways that I’ve changed, but the process of changing was not always lovely.

Rule number two… or not rule number two, but the eight conversation-based dates for a lifetime of love has to do with conflict. Now in this series, we’ve also talked about conflict. Conflict happens in every relationship, and it’s a myth to believe that in a happy relationship, you’ll get along all the time. Relationship conflict serves a purpose, and it’s an opportunity to get to know your partner better and to develop deeper intimacy as you talk about and work through these differences that led to conflict.

Number three is about sex and intimacy. Romantic, intimate rules of connection keep a relationship happy and passionate, and couples… it turns out that couples who talk about sex have more sex, but talking about sex is difficult for the majority of couples. Now the research has shown that it gets easier and more comfortable the more you do it. Not the more you have sex, but the more you talk about sex, the more comfortable you get in having sex, and the easier it becomes to talk about sex, and that’s a really healthy thing to have, and that’s going to also change and ebb and flow and evolve in the years that you’re in a relationship, and so if we… for a lot of couples before they get married, they start to talk about sex and they start to have those conversations, and at some point, that conversation stops, and we know that that becomes detrimental to the relationship because conversation about sex… and intimacy because sex itself is not intimacy, but these conversations about sex and intimacy, knowing the other person, seeing the other person, expressing in non-verbal sexual ways, these feelings need to continue throughout the length of the marriage and not kind of fall into these routines or this rut.

Now the other conversation to be having is around work and money. The research shows that money issues aren’t about money. They’re about what money means to each partner in a relationship, and often what money means to each person was defined in their family growing up, and there’s a story there, and if you don’t know the money story, that’s a great conversation to start having if we’re approaching it with curiosity and seeking understanding. Discovering what money means to both of you will go a long way in resolving the conflict that you might have around money or around work.

The fifth conversation is about family. The research shows approximately 2/3 of couples have a sharp drop in their relationship satisfaction shortly after a child is born, and this drop gets deeper with each subsequent child, so to avoid this drop in relationship happiness, conflict needs to be low, so we’ve got to be developing these skills to get us through this so that we’re not increasing conflict because this drop in relationship satisfaction happened, and we need to be able to maintain our sexual relationship and our intimate relationship. Now there are things for females, speaking as a female who had four children, there’s things that happened to my body… I read the book I think “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” that book came our when I was pregnant with my first or around that time, obviously I wouldn’t have known about that book before I was expecting, but when I was expecting my first child, it was a book, and I read it, and I felt like in many ways, it helped me throughout the pregnancy, but I felt like it kind of was like, and you’re in delivery and I showed up to the hospital to have this baby, and I was not prepared for what happened after I had that baby. Changes to my body, things that I didn’t even have to think about before because they weren’t a thing all of a sudden were a thing, how I felt, all sorts of things changed when I had children, and I did not know that. I couldn’t have known that. I felt like I read that book and I felt like I was prepared, but I was not prepared for something that hadn’t yet happened to me, and it also happened to my spouse, and so we had to have conversations about how children and how this evolving family changed us and changed our relationship and changed some of our life plans, and in some ways made us way better people and much more capable of much more depth and understanding and feeling and satisfaction than I knew that I was, and on the other hand, it made me more scared. It made me think about things that I didn’t have answers for. It made me unsure in ways that I wasn’t unsure, and I think that happened for both of us, and if we’re not able to talk about that, obviously conflict is going to go up, and our intimacy is going to go down because I’m seeing a new part of myself that freaks me out, and I don’t want to share that with my partner, but if I share that with my partner and I allow him or her to share back with me, knowing that our experience is different… of course he’s not going to feel what I feel, and maybe in some ways we had some common overlapping experiences and feelings, but in some ways, we couldn’t have.

Now the sixth discussion that needs to continue is fun and adventure, so we know that play and adventure are vital components to a successful and joyful relationship, and it’s okay if you and your partner have different ideas about what constitutes play and adventure. The key is for you to respect each other’s sense of adventure and what it means to that partner, and some of that is what’s awesome, like if I know that this is exciting for them, it may not be my choice, but I love seeing my partner come alive. I love seeing this playful and adventurous side of my partner come out, and so usually I’m willing to go along with that even if that wouldn’t be what I would pick, and vice versa. I also can say this is what’s fun or adventurous for me, and my partner will get on board with that and say absolutely I want to do that, and maybe again, it’s not his choice, but he wants to do it because of the benefit to the relationship and the benefit to me personally, which indirectly benefits him.

The seventh conversation is around growth and spirituality, so we know that the only constant in a relationship is change. The key is how each person in a relationship accommodates the growth of the other partner. When we’re talking about growth and spirituality, this doesn’t mean that we attend the same religious services. It might mean that, but that can be something that we do by ourselves and the feelings that we have are related to me. I could be sitting in a religious service with my partner and what resonates or what hits me probably is going to be very different from him, and so simply going to a religious service does not bring growth and spirituality into our relationship unless I’m sharing that, and the other part of that is you can have growth and spirituality and it’s not part of a religious worship. Maybe you don’t attend worship services. There still is going to be growth and spiritual growth that happens in the relationship, and we’ve got to be able to key into that, and are we accommodating the growth of the other person? So relationships can be more than just two individuals coming together. They’re stories of transformation. They’re stories of great contribution and meaning to the world and how we interact with the world around us in ways that are meaningful to us. That’s about growth and spirituality, thinking about things. My husband and I are moving… the next phase of life that we’re going to be in is empty-nesters. We’re not empty-nesters yet, and we may not be for the better part of the 2020 decade, but we can feel that we’re moving to that phase. We don’t just all of a sudden arrive at that phase, or hopefully we don’t just all of a sudden arrive at that phase. We can feel that we’re starting to move in that direction, so we’re having conversations about what does this look like, and what do we want it to look like, and what changes, and maybe what stays the same, or how do we do this? Those are opportunities for growth, and those are spiritual growths.

Then the eighth conversation they talk about is dreams. Do we know each other’s dreams? Do we honor each other’s dreams? They find that’s a secret ingredient to creating love for a lifetime. When dreams are honored, everything else in the relationship gets easier.

So as we’ve talked about communication, one of the things, I think I’ve said this a couple of times, every strong relationship is a result of a never-ending conversation between partners. If you think about it just in terms of kind of this circular fashion, it’s ongoing. It’s never-ending, which is why there’s not one conversation is which everything needs to be said or everything needs to be shared. We’re always coming to conversation. We’re always in conversation with our partner.

Now I want to talk for a minute specifically about the word empathy. If you think you’re hearing the word empathy everywhere, you’re probably right. It has become a very trendy word. It’s being talked about by scientists. It’s been talked about by business leaders, education experts, political activists. I feel like in the therapy world, we’ve been talking about it for a while, and according to new research, it’s a habit that we can and should cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives. Now there are some articles out there you hear about them or hear them talked about where empathy can also be a negative for us if we feel everything, like I’ve had clients who will say “I’m an empath.” That’s also kind of a trending word, and in the therapy world, it’s kind of a delicate thing to look at. What this person means is that I’m a highly sensitive person, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when I’ve worked with clients before, obviously I developed a relationship with them, but then I might ask questions like “How does that feel to feel everything around you?” I believe oftentimes this is rooted in a trauma story where that was the role and the rule that that person lived by. It was necessary for them to pick up on all of these idiosyncrasies and to pick up on the nuances in the room in order for them to determine how they respond, and so they had to pick up on all of this stuff, and that was part of their survival, and that may have been an effective way for them to cope in that situation, but is that how they want to live their whole life, and are there some boundaries that they might put in place, like why do you need to feel what this person sitting in the waiting room with you is feeling? Because actually you don’t, and if you’re picking up on that and you’re starting to interact with that feeling that that person is having, even if it’s not verbal, that could be a boundary violation. That person hasn’t invited you into their feeling space, and it’s just one of these traits that you kind of overdeveloped because of the situation that you were raised in.

But let’s talk about empathy in a good way. So it can be a habit that we need to cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives and the relationships that we’re in. So let’s talk for a minute about what empathy is. It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person. We’re aiming to understand their feelings, their perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide my actions with them. So that makes it difficult from kindness, which is something we do for people, or pity, which really is like sympathy but nobody really wants to feel pitied, and usually when we feel pity for somebody, there’s an element of contempt to it, like we’re on a higher level kind of looking down and taking pity on that person, so pity gets a negative connotation, even though kind of the definition of it really is more in line with sympathy. Now if you’re familiar with Brené Brown, in her research she states that sympathy actually fuels disconnection because I’m feeling something for you, whereas empathy is I’m feeling you, and I’m having this. I’m not like on the sidelines. I’m now in it with you. I’m feeling what you feel, and so empathy drives connection. Sympathy fuels disconnection, and we don’t want to confuse empathy with the golden rule, which is kind of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There’s been some people writing kind of like maybe we need to update the golden rule, and it has some good components to it in teaching us how to be a good human being, but sometimes what I would want others to do for me maybe somebody else doesn’t or the golden rule may not take in cultural differences, different things like that, so really that we kind of need to do unto others as they would have you do unto them, so they get a choice in this, it’s not just about me because we might have different tastes, so empathy is about discovering those tastes and responding to those tastes and letting that knowledge guide our actions in the relationship.

So I think the big buzz about empathy stems from a revolutionary shift in the science of how we understand human nature. The old view that we’re essentially self-interested creatures is being nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we’re also homo-empathicus, which means we’re wired for empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid. Now there are two traits that are required for being an empathic conversationalist. One is to master the art of radical listening. We have talked in this series about what it means to actively listen, not just hear the words. When I was in junior high, well throughout my school years, elementary , junior high, high school, almost every report card that the teacher sent home had something to do with Jackie talks too much, and one of my teachers said to my mom, it doesn’t really matter who I move her by. I move her from here because she’s talking to these people too much, and I put her by people she doesn’t even really know, she talks to them too. I just enjoyed not just… it wasn’t just me talking either, but I enjoyed communication. I enjoyed getting to know other people. I was a curious kid, and I was curious about relationships. Now I will say some of that probably had to do with my own trauma and overdeveloping a skill or a natural strength that I had, so going back to one of the teachers would always say to me… because I could be talking to a group of people, kind of whispering, I tried not to do it obviously or be rude about it, and my teacher wouldn’t even turn from the chalkboard. She would just say… my maiden name is McAdams, so she would just say, “McAdams, you’re not listening to me,” and I would often say, “No, I’m hearing you.” And she would say, “What did I just say?” And I could verbatim repeat what she just said. I didn’t have any understanding of what it meant. I really was not listening to her, but I was hearing the words she was saying, and I could repeat those words back. That is not active listening, and that is not radical listening, so Marshall Rosenberg is a psychologist, and he’s the founder of non-violent communication. He says our ability to be present to what’s really going on within to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment is radical listening. He says empathy requires that we listen hard to others and we do all we can to grasp their emotional state and the needs that they have from that emotional state. However, listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. We have to remove our masks. We have to reveal our feelings to someone, and that’s also vital for creating a strong empathic bond. So empathy is a two-way street that at its best is built upon mutual understanding, an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences, and that’s going back and forth. We’re both engaging in radical listening, and then we’re both communicating from this vulnerable, outside of our masks, revealing our feelings to the other person.

Now over the last decade, neuroscientists have identified a 10-section empathy circuit in our brains, which if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other just like our primate cousins, and psychologists have revealed that we are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of our life, but empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. I would even argue that empathy that’s developed in childhood is immature in its development. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives and in all of our relationships. Now Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote “Understanding is the other name of love. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.” So it’s really easy to give into feelings of frustration, despair, and anger, and at the same time, want the world or the people around me to be more loving and for the world to be a kinder place. These seemingly two contradictory experiences where we feel such strong negative emotions internally and long for the love to be the norm are not as diametrically opposed as we might accept, and understanding and curiosity and radical listening and vulnerability are the key to bringing them all together and having effective communication skills and getting the love and connection that we are wired for and that we long for.

Now just a reminder, I’m going to have some of the handouts that we use… so they are copyrighted by the Gottmans, we have that on the bottom of it, I’ve asked my office manager to kind of spruce them up, bring some color, put some things into it so they’re not boring, and as promised, those are going to be available for download. So they should be… there should be a link in the show notes of this final episode in the series for you to download that link.