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  • Kim Keys, LCPC

It's Not About the Nail

There is a hilarious video that often comes up with our couples in counseling. Check it out:

What I find most hilarious about it (aside from the impeccable acting) is that it holds so very true to many of our relationships. In whatever conversation, (“the dishes are on the wrong side of the sink”, “You and your mother always plan things and tell me after!”, “I hate coleslaw.”) there are opportunities for either 1) connection or 2) disconnection. When a conversation ends in disconnection, couples often leave feeling lonely, misunderstood, angry and worst of all… they are storing up a slew of extra-ammunition for the next time they have an IMPORTANT fight to sling at their partner.

In our work with couples, we teach them how to fight (yes, we support fighting here!), in ways that leave them feeling connected, or at the very least, understood.

Why is connection so important? Because we are basically wolves, pack animals that need each other, if not to survive, at least to share the burden and experience a sense of belonging (to use Brene Brown's term). But how do we get there? There are two skills we highlight in the first sessions of couples work: Listening and Validating.

Let’s discuss listening first. The fact is, most of us don’t do it. Most of us, rather than listening, are busy thinking through what we’re going to say in defense, or perhaps even cutting the other person off mid-sentence and not hearing any of it! Here are two skills we teach to help with this:

Pregnant Pause: It’s coined such, because it should last for nine seconds! That is to say, when you think someone is ‘done talking’ wait… for… 9… seconds! Yes! I’m actually asking you to count it. You’ll find that either 1. they're not done talking and you’ll find you’ve provided them space to explain their thoughts more fully, or 2. what they were trying to communicate was entirely different than what you ASSUMED they were trying to communicate in the first two sentences of their monologue. This will provide you more clarity to better aim your response.

Paraphrasing: Okay, hang in there with me on this one. I remember learning this in grad school and you’ll HATE it when you start doing it. It’ll feel disingenuous. It quite literally is repeating back what you heard the other person say. It’s amazing when I have couples do this how often they heard something completely different than what was said! Paraphrasing gives you a chance to clarify you understood correctly and allows your partner to correct any misunderstandings. I mean, if you’re gonna argue, at least argue about what the actual argument is!

Ok, now that you're listening, lets’ talk about Validating.

Listen to what it sounds like when it’s NOT there:

“Man, work is hard right now. Suzie is ON ME all day, micromanaging my work to every detail.”

“Well you should just tell her to stop.”

“The kids are driving me CRAZY today, I've been running them around since 7:00 this morning and all they want is more!”

“Well you should try my day, now that’s hard”

“The airlines screwed up my flight again! I’ve missed my connection and I’m going to be late to my meeting!”

“You’ll get over it. It'll be fine.”

You can feel it right? See it? It’s icky, and leaves people feeling they aren’t heard. So, how can we validate their feelings instead?

1. Identify the emotion they are feeling.

2. Offer empathy/understanding for why they are feeling it.

It might sound like this:

“The airlines screwed up my flight again! I’ve missed my connection and I’m going to be late to my meeting!”

“Oh man, that has to be frustrating. That really messes with your whole day.”

“The kids are driving me CRAZY today, I been running them around since 7:00 this morning and all they want is more!”

“Yeah, the kids can be a handful. I’m sure you’re really tired and need a break.”

“Man, work is hard right now, Suzie is ON ME all day, micromanaging my work to every detail”

“Ugh, it’s so frustrating to have a boss that micromanages you. It’s like you don’t feel trusted!”

Here’s a list of validating responses to keep on hand to help: “Wow, that has to be hard.”

“You’ve worked really hard on this. I’m sorry its not working out”

“You have every right to be proud. That’s amazing for you!”

And some invalidating responses to steer clear of:

“Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“It could be worse!”

“Don’t’ worry about it. It’ll be fine.”

“At least it’s not (insert ANYTHING here).”

“Well, you should have… (again… insert ANYTHING here… it wont go well.)

Give it a whirl! What you’ll find is that what you think is “way harder to do” ends up saving you so many arguments in the long run. The funny part is, you don’t even have to agree in the argument! But since each of you feel validated and heard, the conflict stops. Humans rarely want to win as much as they want to be understood.

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